Episode 72 - Thanksgiving: A History of the Holiday

It's Thanksgiving week and our podcast hosts dive into the history of this important American holiday, including the pilgrimage to America, religious persecution, Plymouth Rock, and the meal that started the strong tradition of turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie each November.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me tonight in a rare evening podcast, as he always does, is President Wyatt. Hi, Scott. 

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve. It’s nice to be here together on this Thanksgiving week.

Meredith: It is Thanksgiving week, and last year, we did a thing together on Thanksgiving that people really responded to. We did a little bit of a history of Thanksgiving as told by you, a historian, and people really seemed to like it. So, we decided that we’d replay it this year. We don’t typically go in for the “greatest of” or the “biggest hits” of the podcast, but this one seemed like it might be a nice one to roll back out. So, from Thanksgiving of 2018, this is Scott talking about the history of Thanksgiving. 

Wyatt: And all of our assumptions are almost right. [Laughs] But, as you get out the cranberries and stuffing and the turkey, enjoy a little history about what Thanksgiving is all about and how we got here. 

Meredith: Enjoy. 

Meredith: Despite the fact that you can’t see, it’s quite dark and quite late—and we decided we’d get together and record a podcast about the story of Thanksgiving because what we might have learned in school about it or might have become folklore is not the whole story, anyway. 

Wyatt: Yeah. So, the teaser is this: why did the Pilgrims come to America? Of course, we can’t really answer the question right now because then our listeners might say, “We’ve got the answer, we’ll shut it off.” 

Meredith: That’s right. But, I’ll bite. [Both laugh] “Religious freedom” is kind of the stock answer, right? 

Wyatt: Yeah, that is the stock answer. But it’s actually sort of not accurate. I mean, it’s complicated. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: But…yeah. So, let’s go back and start at the beginning. 

Meredith: It’s the Dutch, right? Is that who we’re talking about?

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Meredith: Isn’t that where the Pilgrims come from?

Wyatt: Well, the Pilgrims come from England. 

Meredith: Oh, OK. 

Wyatt: Originally. So, the story that we have…let’s start the story in 1603.

Meredith: OK. 

Wyatt: We have a new king, James. The same James for the King James Bible. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: And King James starts putting a lot of pressure to force everyone to conform to the Church of England. And those who were a little bit sideways with the Church of England were subject to some fairly serious punishments. Prison, even execution, those kinds of things. 

Meredith: Yeah, I happened to be a part of a broadcast that was about the 400th anniversary of the coming forward of the King James Bible and everything that led up to that…if you ever get a chance to—I’ll mention the name of the show later because I’m sure we’re going to talk about this era—but it was a PBS special and the ways in which they killed people or tortured people in those days, most unsavory. I was involved in the music of a particular scene that was very difficult to watch as they were reenacting it. 

Wyatt: Yeah, well there’s no point in killing somebody. You’ve got to kill them in style. 

Meredith: That’s right. I’ll say it now, Fires of Faith. 

Wyatt: Fires of Faith. 

Meredith: Yeah, if you ever get the chance to see a show called, Fires of Faith, while they’re executing Tyndale and all the other people that were advocating for the Bible to be in English, that’s me in the background humming and singing in Gallic and other things. 

Wyatt: Yeah, well, and you know what, it’s worth pausing a half a minute and making the comment that we struggle a little bit in our world today accepting people with different opinions and being inclusive and all that kind of stuff. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: But we are sure a lot further ahead than 1603. 

Meredith: That’s right, that’s right. 

Wyatt: Where if you didn’t believe and worship exactly right, you were in serious trouble. Well, it was during this time we’ve got this guy by the name of William Brewster. 

Meredith: I’ve heard that name. 

Wyatt: Yeah, he’s a postmaster in England. Small, little tiny village. But what’s unique about him is that he’s got a manor house, and in the manor house, secretly a group of Separatists are meeting every Sunday. And one of two ministers is none other than John Robinson. And theres’ a little kid—I shouldn’t say kid, but he was young—by the name of William Bradford who also plays prominently in the Pilgrim story. 

Meredith: He does. He becomes a political leader.

Wyatt: That’s right. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Yeah. So, these guys are meeting and it’s helpful probably to remember what a Separatist is. So, we have during the 1600s the Puritans, and the Puritans thought that the church had wandered astray, a lot of inappropriate things, and so, they wanted to purify the church, get back to the original New Testament church. Anything that was taught in the Church of England that—or the catholic church for that matter—that wasn’t straight out of the Bible was man-made and it was not good. They were also pre-destination believers…

Meredith: Oh. 

Wyatt: But within this group of Puritans that wanted to take us back to the pure original New Testament faith was kind of a radical extreme element and they were the Separatists. And the Separatist didn’t just want to take care of all of the problems in the church, they just said, “We’re out of here.” So, they just want to leave. 

Meredith: New church. 

Wyatt: New church. “Let’s go. We’re not going to reform this church around us, but we know what we need to believe and so we’re just going to go off on our own.” And so, you’ve got John Robinson is the minister secretly in William Bradford’s house and this group of Separatists. Well, it just so happens that in 1607, the Bishop of York discovers they’re meeting there, sends the authorities after them, several people are arrested and go to jail. Others that were worshiping there figured out that they’re homes were being watched, they were under surveillance. 

Meredith: Wow. 

Wyatt: Kind of interesting, isn’t it?

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: This was a really scary time for them. They can’t worship what they want without having the government tracking them down, following them, watching them at night, looking through the windows of their homes to see if they’re doing something on Sundays that they shouldn’t be doing, like worshipping the way they want.

Meredith: I imagine this is where we get our separation of church and state clause. 

Wyatt: [Laughs] Well, no, not for a long time. 

Meredith: Oh, well that will be interesting. OK, sorry, I’ll quit interrupting. 

Wyatt: No, no, this is good. But, nevertheless, this is when the Separatists decided, “It’s time to leave. Because we’re not giving in. We want to worship the way we want to worship, and we can’t do it here. This is too scary, people keep going to prison. They decided they’re going to leave, and they’re going to go to Holland.

Meredith: That’s where the Dutch come in. I knew they were in there. 

Wyatt: Yeah, you knew that was part of the story. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: But they’re going to go to Holland, there is wide open religious freedom. So, they can go to Holland, they can worship the way they want, they don’t have to worry about anything. The problem is, you can’t travel out of the country without official permission, and England is not going to give official permission to any Separatist at all. 

Meredith: Oh. 

Wyatt: So, not only can you not worship the way you want to worship, but you can’t leave and worship what you want somewhere else. Well, this is…their escape from England to Holland actually in and of itself is one of those great adventure stories. This would make a good movie. 

Meredith: Wow. 

Wyatt: Just this part. So, the first attempt, they hire a captain—an English captain—who takes their money and ends up being a thief. After he’s got their money, he notifies the authorities, the authorities come, they arrest them, and a bunch of the leaders go to jail. 

Meredith: Wow. 

Wyatt: It’s a great set up. “Give me your money, I call the authorities…”

Meredith: Yep. 

Wyatt: “I’m free, you’re in jail.” Do that a few times a year and you can make a lot of cash. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: [Laughs] And a lot of Separatist groups were doing this, they were leaving. So, there had been several groups go to Holland and set up their own little community. The second attempt, they hired a Dutch captain and the Dutch captain was more honest than this other guy. But the Dutch captain brings his ship in, and as they start loading on the ship—you’ve got several of the men on the ship, the women and children are still on the shore—when all of the sudden the local militia shows up. 

Meredith: Oh, wow. 

Wyatt: And the Dutch captain is scared that he’s going to be in trouble, so he just sets sail. And there you’ve got all of these men on deck looking to the shore where their wives and their kids are all crying, and it takes a long time before…of course the men keep going to Holland because that’s where the captain takes them, and it takes quite a while for the men remaining on the shore and the other women and kids to connect up with them in Holland. 

Meredith: Oh my gosh, so, they went separately then?

Wyatt: They went separately 

Meredith: That’s amazing. 

Wyatt: The Separatists went separately. But this was not an easy deal. You know, they’re sneaking around and getting in trouble, but they were pretty darn persistent in what they were doing. Well, months later, they get reunited in Holland. John Robinson, their minister, leads them to a town called Leiden, and Leiden is a commercial center. So, these Separatists are coming from these beautiful, pasture lands of England where they have sheep and they’ve got that agricultural lifestyle. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: But now, they’re in a commercial center and the employment that they’re able to get is working in factories. They don’t like it. After they’re there for quite a bit of time working six days a week from dawn to dusk, back-breaking work, not very fun. Then, there are some other things that start happening. There’s a treaty that Holland has with Spain and it’s about tot come due and that creates some uncertainties for them. “What’s going to happen when this treaty comes undone?” And then there was also some debate and unrest over some theologians that were preaching some things, and that created some uncertainties. “Are we going to really have full religious freedom or not? What’s going on in this country?” Nothing had changed, but they were worried about it. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: All this stuff. But the most important part, the part that made them the most upset or concerned about their years in Holland was that their children were growing up to be Dutch. 

Meredith: Hmm. 

Wyatt: And these are people who, although they don’t believe in the Church of England, still loved England. They wanted to have their own English community, they wanted their children to grow up English, they did not want them to be like the Dutch. So, at that point, the decide, “We’ve got to leave Holland. Not so much for religious freedom, but to escape the influences the Dutch are having on our kids.”

Meredith: Interesting. 

Wyatt: And they’re becoming disconnected with their English heritage. So, here is the teaser for Thanksgiving dinner. When you show up for Thanksgiving dinner and they family is all gathered around, you say, “Why did the Pilgrims come to America?”

Meredith: “…Cross the road?” [Laughs] Yes?

Wyatt: “To get to the other side.” No, the actual answer is sort of “to escape the Dutch.” So, yes, absolutely they were seeking religious freedom, but they found it in Holland, but they couldn’t’ live an English village lifestyle in Holland. So, there, you know, in a lot of ways, they were actually escaping the Dutch, not gaining religious freedom. I just think that’s such a fun little twist on the story. 

Meredith: That is. 

Wyatt: Of course, they were religious and of course, they were seeking religious freedom, but they wanted religious freedom in an English village. 

Meredith: I just spent three or four days in Amsterdam and they talk about that golden era which is right during this period that we’re talking about where Amsterdam was a world commercial center and you can see that if you had grown up living an agrarian lifestyle then all of the sudden being thrown into a…into essentially the beginnings of the industrial revolution…”

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Meredith: Not quite that, but into a major world port that you’d…

Wyatt: You’re making shoes. 

Meredith: Yeah, exactly. 

Wyatt: From dawn to dusk, six days a week. You’re…

Meredith: Or candles or whatever, 

Wyatt: Yeah, you’re in cloth factories. This is not a wonderful lifestyle for them. 

Meredith: Yeah. Interesting. 

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, OK. So, now it’s in their mind, “We’re headed to America.” This is actually…we’ve talked already about the sacrifices, the adventure, the risks that they took escaping from England to Holland and then the discomforts and the back-breaking work in Holland, and now they’re going to talk about going to America. This is super scary. This is not light stuff. 

Meredith: Not an easy journey. 

Wyatt: So, all attempts to establish a permanent English settlement had failed, except for Jamestown in 1607. So, they knew that these various attempts had not been successful. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: But Jamestown. So, you got…tell me if this is successful or not. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Year one, 108 settlers land and 70 of them die in the first year. In the second year, 500 settlers land and within that year, 440 die. 

Meredith: Oh, my gosh. 

Wyatt: In fact, between 1619 and 1622, the Virginia Company sent 3,600 settlers to Virginia. 3,000 of them died. The odds are not with you. 

Meredith: No. 

Wyatt: And plus, the…

Meredith: [Laughs] Well over a coin flip that you’re going to die. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it is well over a coin flip. [Both laugh] Plus, they’re…this is dying of starvation. Plus, they hear all of these stories about the native Indians they would call them and all the horrible atrocities that they’re committing against these new settlers. They’re reading in books in the library about the most gruesome kinds of deaths that are being inflicted. Whether it’s true or not, these are the stories that they’re reading. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: And some of them are horrible. So, it’s not working for anybody else, most of the people die, there are these scary people over there that are going to come after us in their minds, but they decide to go anyway. And they go because they believed that God wanted them to go. 

Meredith: Hmm. 

Wyatt: They believed that they were on the very edge of the Millennium and that this was…that the New World was the place where the Millennium was going to be perfect. In addition to that, in 1618, there was a bright comet that flies over England and they thought that might be…many of the people thought that that might be the signs of the great Battle of Armageddon. 

Meredith: Hmm.

Wyatt: Kind of scary. When you don’t understand these things…

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt:…They can play a lot of thoughts in your minds. The final apocalyptic battle was coming, it’s on its way. Just before they leave, there’s reports of another group of Separatists. 180 boarded the ship and by the time that ship reached the Americas, 130 of them were dead. They didn’t even get across the ocean. 

Meredith: That’s a bad cruise. 

Wyatt: Yeah, it’s a bad cruise. 

Meredith: Wow. 

Wyatt: And these ships, you know, they…

Meredith: It’s just astonishing the morbidity rates. 

Wyatt: Yeah, they’re terrible, but they keep going. But if we…today, if we…and we talk about everybody that’s on the Oregon Trail and the Mormon trail…

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: . . . . And all of these trails that are coming across the plains centuries later and the risk that people took on those. But today, Steve, if we were to…if 50% of the people died on a journey and we took our families, we would be prosecuted for child abuse. 

Meredith: That’s right. [Both laugh] 

Wyatt: Or neglect or something. [Laughs]

Meredith: Yeah. No, that…

Wyatt: It’s…the odds are just not good enough. Well, so, the process of getting started was fraught with all kinds of problems too. So, it just keeps coming for these people. They decided to join up with Thomas Weston and his group of merchant adventurers. These were a group of London merchants who were investing in Virginia or the Hudson. And so, you would…they would pay all the cost for you to go across the ocean and then once you arrived, you would work four days a week for them. Two days a week, you would work for yourself, have the sabbath day free, and it would take several years to repay them the cost of going across. And so, they started thinking about that, working with them, they would be fishing and working in the fur trade to pay this all back. But in 1620, as Thomas Weston is trying to get this together, things start going sideways, there’s no ship, they become worried about it, and so the Pilgrims end up, on their own, purchasing a ship in Holland called the Speedwell. It’s a 16-ton vessel and in June of 1620, they set sail. To shorten the story, the Speedwell was not sea-worthy. So, they’d spend all their money on a ship that they can’t take. 

Meredith: Wow. 

Wyatt: They end up back with Thomas Weston with this Merchant Adventurers group who had eventually found a ship called…

Meredith: The Mayflower. 

Wyatt: The Mayflower, that’s right. 

Meredith: I got one right, finally. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: And ultimately on September 6 of 1620, the Mayflower sets sail. There’s 102 on board. About 50 of them are pilgrims and 52 of them are not necessarily religious at all, they’re just going over there to make money. 

Meredith: Yeah. I don’t know why that seems like a small number to me. I mean, we kind of say this is our first real significant toe-told and it was really 50 people. 

Wyatt: 50 people. 50 pilgrims. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Plus, about 53 adventurers and we can’t forget to mention there were two dogs. 

Meredith: Two dogs. 

Wyatt: So, 104 total if you count the dogs. 

Meredith: There you go. 

Wyatt: And they cross the ocean, they…it’s late, it’s a particularly challenging trip across. By the time they get over, they’re out of food, their water barrels are…they’re dipping out of the bottom of the barrels, and those are not good places to drink from. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: They’re out of beer which is the safest thing that you can drink because of the alcohol which kills…

Meredith: Everything. 

Wyatt: Everything. But they land, the story of the Mayflower Compact, which is another story altogether but kind of one of the first sort of governments in this country. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: And by…and so, they’re landing late in the year, but by the time spring coms around as you could guess, half of them are dead. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: So, 52 out of this group of 102 are dead by spring. 

Meredith: Wow. 

Wyatt: Not great. And this is where Squanto comes in.

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: All these other Native Americans. Squanto could speak English, Squanto had been to England. He’s the guy that showed them how to grow corn. 

Meredith: What a miracle that is. [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Isn’t that interesting? 

Meredith: There was someone there that could…

Wyatt: Talk to them. 

Meredith: Yeah. That could interpret. 

Wyatt: There…if we played this story on through, there was a lot of intrigue and the way the Pilgrims and the various local natives kind of conspired around seeking power and everything, it was really quite an interesting…that’s quite an interesting story, but that’s a story for another day. But they figure out how to grow corn by putting some fish in each hole and all those kinds of things. 

Meredith: I don’t know that story. 

Wyatt: Yeah, Squanto…

Meredith: I mean, seeds obviously too, but they’re…

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: Fish helps the…

Wyatt: You put a piece of fish in the hole when you plant the seed of corn and the corn will grow.

Meredith: Wow. 

Wyatt: So, he was showing them how they could be productive in their agricultural pursuits. They spend that year and things work out reasonably well and that fall, they have their first Thanksgiving dinner. And we don’t know when it was, it was probably late September/early October, not November, but here’s what’s on the menu. Are you ready? 

Meredith: Ready. 

Wyatt: Cranberry sauce, no. No pumpkin pies. 

Meredith: By the way, I’m OK with no cranberry sauce. [Both laugh] I’m not sure how that wedged its way in there, I’d just like to say. But, OK. 

Wyatt: It seems a little random, doesn’t it? This is what they probably had. They certainly grew corn, so they had corn. They had squash, they grew beans, they had barley, peas, they would have undoubtedly had ducks and geese and wild turkeys. A lot of fish, so they probably had bass and blue fish and cod. Because they had a crop of barley, they had beer that they were able to brew. No forks or spoons, they would have eaten with knives and fingers. But that’s the first Thanksgiving dinner. 

Meredith: Well, that sounds like a pretty good…

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s not a bad meal. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: It’s a big meal. Big celebration. And then, as we remember, we just play this on forward and what the Pilgrims are really after is they’re after not really religious freedom in the sense that we think of religious freedom, but they wanted to practice religion the way they believed it in the community that had the same culture of an English community. They weren’t particularly excited about everybody worshipping however they wanted to, they really kind of wanted everybody to worship the way they wanted. 

Meredith: Well, there you go. [Laughs]

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s right. But, you can understand that because back then, it was really seen that communities were more stable if everybody had the same.

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Which is part of the reason why King James was pushing everybody to have the same faith. So, this was the tradition that they grew up in and they just were perpetuating that same tradition, only in a way that they could worship the way they wanted to worship. Interestingly, most of the colonies ended up having established religions. Even all the way to the point of 1776 when the country is starting, and each state creates its own constitution after or around the time that we declared independence from Great Britain. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: We’re fast-forwarding quite a bit of time, but even then a lot of the states put into their constitutions established religion.

Meredith: Really?

Wyatt: Yeah, so…

Meredith: That’s interesting. 

Wyatt: Yeah, the Constitution of the United States says in its First Amendment, “No established religion.” But that only applied to the Federal government, it did not apply to the state governments. State governments were not restricted by any of the First Amendment. Any of the Bill of Rights, including the Frist Amendment. 

Meredith: And so, there’s a…there’s a supremacy amendment of some kind. The Fourteenth, right? 

Wyatt: Yeah, that doesn’t come until…of course, all of the states have their own constitutions, so a lot of those things applied to them through their own constitutions, but…

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: But most of their constitutions created established religion. And those Bill of Rights don’t apply to anybody until after, one at a time, each of those rights one at a time after the Civil War, after the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Meredith: Wow. 

Wyatt: But then again, that’s another story, too. 

Meredith: Yeah, but that’s pretty amazingly far down the road. 

Wyatt: Yeah, I’m still thinking of Venice and wild turkey and…anyway, there you go. 

Meredith: That’s the story of the first Thanksgiving. 

Wyatt: First Thanksgiving. 

Meredith: Have you ever been to Plymouth Rock? 

Wyatt: I have, yeah. 

Meredith: It’s not nearly as…

Wyatt: Impressive as…

Meredith: You’ve got…it’s a pretty small little…

Wyatt: Yeah. “Plymouth Pebble?”

Meredith: Exactly. “Plymouth Step Stone onto the shore.” [Both laugh]

Wyatt: Yeah, I had the image of this massive boulder. 

Meredith: That’s sort of what I thought too. 

Wyatt: It’s not exactly that, is it? 

Meredith: Nope, just one of the things that…just another thing that we’ve learned in our discussion about Thanksgiving. 

Wyatt: But it is a gorgeous place, and there were a lot of things that made it so that they could be successful, when so many others had failed. But still, my goodness. The mortality rate of these…they had to be driven by these deep beliefs that God wanted them there, that they’re on the edge of the Millennium, or, as the other half of the people on the Mayflower, were…a very unfortunate and poor life in England and the hopes of becoming rich. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: It was both types and they lived together. If we were to fast-forward, of course George Washington had a declaration of a Thanksgiving feast, and Abraham Lincoln had a declaration of Thanksgiving Feast and ultimately landing us as the fourth Thursday of November each year. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: And maybe…

Meredith: That went back and forth actually for a long time, actually. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Meredith: Into the 20th century that went back and forth. 

Wyatt: Yeah, maybe if it’s Thanksgiving and one of the ways to be thankful is to find some way to do it with somebody else or to help somebody. We typically find at the University here at Southern Utah University, and I believe that many colleges and universities in the United States try to schedule ways that international students who are visiting can have Thanksgiving dinner with the locals. 

Meredith: A local family. 

Wyatt: Mhmm.  

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: I remember when I was a kid we did that all the time. My dad, who was a faculty member, would bring home some of his students and we had Thanksgiving with them. That was always kind of an interesting cultural thing for us. Anyway...

Meredith: Thanksgiving. 

Wyatt: Thanksgiving. 

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We wish you, our listeners, a very happy Thanksgiving. Please be safe, be happy, be peaceful. We’ll be back again soon, bye bye.