THANKSGIVING IN AMERICA
From The National Hispanic Reporter, November 1991; posted on the Deming Headlight, November 25, 2010.
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
In most enterprises, moments of thanks- giving take place for safe arrival or deliverance. The story about the first Thanksgiving in America credits the Pilgrims at the Massachusetts Bay Colony celebrating their safe arrival at the Atlantic frontier of the “new world”.
That band of Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth, England, on September 15, 1620 on the Mayflower with 103 religious dissenters on board. Their original destination was the Virginia colony, but they put to at Cape Cod on November 19, and set foot on Plymouth rock (Massachusetts) on December 21 (December 11, Old Style).
It is recorded that these Pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution in England; they actually came to practice Puritanism, a religious fundamentalism of intolerance that eliminated parliamentary government in England between 1649 and 1660.
The Pilgrims who came to America were not just simple religious conservatives persecuted by the King and the Church of England for their unorthodox beliefs. They were political revolutionaries who meant to over throw the English monarchy and did in 1649. Noble as their victory was, Puritan tyranny simply replaced royal tyranny.
But in 1620, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony were outcasts who could not fit into English mainstream society. They regarded their Wampanoag Indian benefactors as their enemy, as noted in the Plymouth Thanksgiving sermon of 1623 by Mather the Elder who gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox that destroyed the majority of the Wampanoag Indians. He praised God for eliminating “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth.
To the Pilgrims, the Indians were heathens and, therefore, instruments of the Devil. Squanto, the only educated Wampanoag among the Indians, was regarded as merely an instrument of God set in the wilderness to provide for the survival of the Chosen Elect–the Pilgrims.
Records are not very clear about when the Pilgrims celebrated that first Thanksgiving. And stories about that first Pilgrim thanks- giving have been embroidered with touches of Indian charity helping those Pilgrims through their first rough winter in America.
But at that first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, Pilgrim friendship was feigned and the peace offered tenuous. A generation later when the population shift favored the whites. Puritans slaughtered Indians genocidally in the conflict that has become known as King Philip’s War, after which King Philip of the Indians was beheaded and the Wampanoags sold into slavery. So much for the myth of harmony about that first Thanksgiving.
The myth of that first Thanksgiving actually came into being during the 19th century when the national goal of assimilation emerged as a way to homogenize a diversity of people into a unified nation through a common national (albeit mythical) history.
But the Pilgrim Thanksgiving of 1621 was not the first thanksgiving in America. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon pro-claimed thanksgiving when his crew put ashore on what is now St. Augustine, Florida. In his account of the Conquest of Mexico, Bernal Diaz notes a moment of thanksgiving in 1519 joined by Cortez and his men for safe passage to what is now Veracruz, Mexico.
A story of thanksgiving is told about Panfilo de Narvaez and his expedition to Florida in 1526. Another story of thanksgiving is told about Coronado and his men, taking place on the banks of the Rio Grande near present-day San Elizario, Texas, in 1540 near what is today El Paso. And on September 8, 1565, Don Pedro Menendez declared a day of thanks before begining construction of St. Augustine, Florida. Stories of thanksgiving abound.
Mention is made here and there in American history about a national day of thanksgiving. On October 3, 1863, for example, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a day of thanksgiving . And in 1905, Theodore Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring November 12 as a day of thanksgiving. Not Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgiving Day did not actually become a national holiday until December 26, 1941, with House Joint Resolution 41 (77th Congress, 1st Session) declaring the 4th Thursday in Novem-ber as Thanksgiving Day.
Thanksgiving is a day all Americans commemorate. But Thanksgiving is not a proprietary holiday. The Pilgrims didn’t invent it. Nor did the Spanish. But when we think of the first thanksgiving we need to look at the forgotten (some would say “neglected”) pages of American history. For the history of the United States during the period when its lands were Spanish is as much a part of American history as is the history of the period when its lands were English.
More importantly, perhaps, is to remember that as a national holiday, Thanksgiving Day is of recent origin, belonging to the children of the 20th century. It’s time to re-commemorate Thanksgiving Day as a day of hope for the American children of the 21st century.
Copyright © 1991 by the author. All rights reserved.