by Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
This story was offered several years ago, but in view of recent news it deserves repeating. History is written by the winner, which accounts for revised versions of past events. Some rewrite history to support a specific agenda, quoting facts out of context, citing only those which support conclusions they’ve already reached and exaggerating, minimizing or omitting those that don’t. Some revise history to glorify or inspire support for a cause or to cover up transgressions of their predecessors. A study of recent politics can provide some striking examples. In recent years several books have exposed some revisionist history, but sadly much is still presented as fact in our school texts. One of the most revised is how the discovery and conquest of America was slanted to portray Europeans as the natural inheritors of the earth and justify colonization. From the war with Mexico and the massacre at Wounded Knee to the very beginning of our nation, facts have been altered.
One example, particularly appropriate at this time of year, is the holiday known as Thanksgiving. According to the popular story, heroic Christian pilgrims arrived in America and shared what little they had with their poor Indian neighbors in thanksgiving for their successful arrival and harvest. The truth of the matter is that the Indians weren’t poor, and if they hadn’t shared their bounty with the pilgrims, the pilgrims might not have survived. After all, yams, corn, and the rest were all Indian dietary staples and the turkey was an American bird. It was Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe who taught the newcomers how to plant, grow, and harvest the strange foods they hadn’t seen before. As for the feast, it wasn’t new; it was in thanks for a bountiful harvest and harvest festivals were celebrated in many lands for centuries before the pilgrims ever buttered their first corn on the cob. But, who were the pilgrims and why do they get the credit for originating Thanksgiving?
The American Heritage Dictionary defines pilgrim as one who makes a journey for a religious purpose. The religious purpose of their trip was to escape persecution, for they advocated a strict discipline according to their own interpretation of the bible. Their aim was to purify not only the church, but individual conduct. They were tolerated for their anti-Catholic bias, but when they demanded reforms to purify the Church of England, they were hunted out of the country! We use the term Pilgrim to identify the group who arrived at Plymouth in 1620 on the Mayflower, and Puritans to define the larger group, led by John Winthrop, who arrived ten years later to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Both groups wanted to purify the church, yet they differed about the changes. Some who stayed in England favored Presbyterianism, already strong in Scotland. Those who came to Plymouth considered the congregation the ultimate authority while those who came to Massachusetts considered a hierarchy elected by the congregation as the ultimate authority. Despite these minor differences they all had one thing in common: they were among the most unreasonable bigoted groups in history. In 1649 – less than 30 years later – the Puritans who remained in England successfully fomented a civil-war under Oliver Cromwell, beheaded King Charles, and then turned their army of zealots toward Ireland. British Major-Gen Frank Kitson in his book, Low Intensity Operations, wrote of this army, that two of its main reasons for existing were defense of their religion and suppression of Irish Catholics.
In Ireland, the Puritan Army is remembered for its brutal indiscriminate slaughtering of defenseless civilians. After recording that at Drogheda, for five days men, women, and children were hunted down and butchered, Cromwell recorded that “In this very place (Saint Peter’s Church) a thousand of them were put to the sword, fleeing thither for safety.” On October 2nd, 1649, he declared a national day of thanksgiving in celebration of the deed – thanksgiving was becoming more than a harvest festival with these people. Meanwhile, in America in 1675, the sons of the Pilgrims who dined with the Wampanoag tribe that harvest day in 1621, began an 11-year war over land grabs and defeated them. At the same time, Ann Glover, who had fled the turmoil in Ireland, took up residence in the Puritan colony in Massachusetts. Under suspicion by false accusations, one night, Ann was overheard saying her evening prayers in her native Irish and was accused by Cotton Mather of conversing with the devil. When it was learned that she was an Irish Catholic, she was told to denounce her religion; she refused and was hanged as a witch. The year was 1688 – 39 years after the thanksgiving at Drogheda, and 68 years after the Puritan’s thanksgiving in America.
Fortunately, the concept of the congregation as ultimate authority allowed the election of more moderate leaders as time progressed and most of today’s religious Congregationalists are more docile. The idea of giving thanks to God remains a fundamental duty, be it for a bountiful harvest or a blessing bestowed, but the cruel, un-compromising, witch-burning Puritans of the 1600s are hardly the example to hold up to our children as role models for Thanksgiving.
Let us instead look to America’s first official national day of Thanksgiving proclaimed by the Continental Congress on December 18, 1777, “as a day of solemn thanksgiving and praise” for the “signal success” of our forces at the Battle of Saratoga – a turning point in the Revolution. And the turning point in that battle was the killing of General Frazier by Irish marksman, Timothy Murphy of General Charles (Co. Meath) Thompson’s Pennsylvania Rifle Battalion.
In 1846 annual days of Thanksgiving were being celebrated in at least 14 states when author Sarah Hale began a campaign to make the last Thursday in November a national day of Thanksgiving. In the 1860s, she wrote to every state and territorial governor urging the idea as one of national unity in a country torn by civil war. On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln finally declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day bringing together all the past elements of the harvest festival, national patriotism, and religious observance.
This is the real story behind Thanksgiving day and the message it should convey is one of thanks for all our blessings, both civil and religious. This year, instead of just food and football, let us remember give thanks to the Almighty for the blessings bestowed on our families and on this great nation . . . and forget the guys in the funny hats with buckles on their shoes!