I’ve long asked why gratitude for blessings of home and family requires the presence of Pilgrims. Thanksgiving was an established regional holiday long before it acquired the Pilgrim myth, as I wrote last week. Even after 1863, when Lincoln named the last Thursday in November a day of national Thanksgiving, the story gained little traction. Ongoing wars on the Western Plains and the memory of the Trail of Tears made it hard to romanticize Indian-Pilgrim relations.
Only as immigration became a national issue in the 1890s did the Pilgrims take center stage. The families who came on the Mayflower could be cast as model immigrants: pious, industrious, and Protestant. New arrivals might learn American values from their example. Greeting cards, textbooks, school plays, and political speeches put the Pilgrims at the heart of the holiday.
“How the Pilgrims would have enjoyed Budweiser,” boasted a newspaper ad in 1908; “how they would have quaffed it with heartfelt praise and gladness of heart.” Like a Rorschach inkblot, the Pilgrim myth could illustrate any cause. Theodore Roosevelt, a Progressive, said the Pilgrims were always willing to regulate conduct when necessary for the public good. Life Magazine during World War II described them as a strong-minded people who waged hard wars and knew victory comes from God. According to an anti-Communist ad in the 1950s, the Pilgrims rejected government dictation because they knew they’d have enough if every man worked for himself. *
If some today frame the “first Thanksgiving” as a model of intercultural friendship, others deplore the offense to indigenous people in glossing over centuries of genocide. Why can’t we banish the Pilgrims from a holiday that wasn’t about them in the first place? Because we’d lose the opportunity to correct the tale with a more troubling history of settler-Indian relations? I’m afraid we’re stuck with the Pilgrims at Thanksgiving because their story can serve to support any assertion, even the assertion that their story isn’t true.
*Robert Tracy McKenzie details these and other examples in “The First Thanksgiving in American Memory,” part 3 and part 4.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.