American as Pumpkin Pie

A History of Thanksgiving

If a Pilgrim were to attend a contemporary Thanksgiving celebration, he or she would probably be stunned by our “traditional” foods. In this episode of BackStory, The hosts discuss Puritan foods with historian James McWilliams, and religion scholar Anne Blue Wills reveals the surprising, 19th century origins of our national holiday. We’ll also hear from legendary NFL quarterback Roger Staubach about what it was like to spend every turkey day on the football field.

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Peter Onuf:  This is BackStory with us, the American Backstory hosts.  In Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.

Ed Ayers:  I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century history guy.

Brian Balogh:  And I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th century history guy.


Brian Balogh:  It’s that time of year in American, when the holidays start to come fast and furious.  Thirty-five years ago, Charlie Brown just about summed it up to his sister, Sally, and his good buddy, Linus.

[Charlie Brown Clip] “We’ve got another holiday to worry about.  It seems Thanksgiving Day is upon us.  I haven’t even finished eating all my Halloween candy.  Sally, Thanksgiving is a very important holiday.  Ours was the first country in the world to make a national holiday to give thanks.”

Peter:  Each week on BackStory, we take a topic from the here and now and explore its historical roots.  This week, we’re getting out the carving knives and taking on Thanksgiving.  Like Linus said, it’s a very important holiday; but why is it so important and why did the U.S. Declare a national holiday to give thanks. By the end of today’s show, we hope to have some answers.

Brian:  hosts, I know that when it comes to holidays, Thanksgiving is really the big enchilada for historians; I mean, what other holiday do people get out and actually re-enact an episode from American history, but I get excited about Thanksgiving for an entirely different reason.

[football commentary]

Brian:  Now, when we were planning today’s show, I made it clear how I felt about this to our producers, and as usual, they didn’t listen to me, they said I had to do an interview anyway, so I said, “All right, you find me someone who values what I value about the holiday, and I’ll do your interview.”  Peter, Ed, our producers, once again, came through.

Roger Staubach: “I’m Roger Stabuch, I was a former quarterback for the United States Naval Academy, and I also spent 11 years as a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys”

Brian:  Roger Stabuch a/k/a/ “Roger the Dodger”, a/k/a/ “Captain Comeback”, a/k/a/ one of my favorite football players – ever.  During those 11 years when Stabuch played for the Dallas Cowboys, I probably spent every single Thanksgiving with Roger.  You see, for many years, the Cowboys have been one of the two NFL teams to play home games on Thanksgiving Day.

Roger:  It really got started when I first joined the team; Detroit started it, and the NFL decided that they were going to have a double-header, so, Tex Fram, who was our General Manager, volunteered and Coach Landry told us we were going  to start playing on Thanksgiving.

Brian:  And do you remember when he told you that?

Roger:  Yeah, you’re thinking about, usually it takes a few days to heal, and if you get beat up and bruised after the Sunday game, we had to kind of get back into it immediately to get ready for Thursday game, and we took Wednesday off, so really, we only had two days to put in normally what would be a four-day of game plan.

Brian:  Did he ever say anything to you, or tell you about Tom Landry, now the great coach of the Dallas Cowboys, did he ever say anything to you about Thanksgiving; did he even notice that it was Thanksgiving, except, of course, the different prep time.

Roger:  No, when he called me the night before, he always called me the night before the game to maybe go over a few things; I’d literally have the game plan by the phone, and he wouldn’t even say “Hey Roger”, I’d just pick up the phone, and he’d say on that 16, that red slip on motion, we want to run a different name out on; so, I’d just take some notes down, and of course, Thanksgiving would be better because our game plans could get pretty complicated, but he didn’t have enough time to complicate them by Thursday.  And then he’d also look at the other guys, they’d be at a little bit of a disadvantage, because we’d have our Thanksgiving Day at home.  No one really wanted to play on Thanksgiving, and when Tex volunteered, as long as we’d play at home and we’d do it every year.

Brian:  So, you did give thanks for that.

Roger:  I definitely gave thanks for that.

Brian:  Now, you know, that the Cowboys are known as “America’s Team”; do you think that playing on Thanksgiving is part of what makes the Cowboys America’s Team.

Roger:  Well, I think Brian, the exposure that Tex Ram gave the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day has been a big part of it; you’re on national t.v., but we also were a winning team; or as Detroit . . .

Brian:  Right, they’re not America’s team, and they’d been playing on Thanksgiving a lot longer than you . . .

Roger: What it’s part of it is if you’re winning and you’re on t.v., people take a liking to you and people either loved the Cowboys or they hated the Cowboys, and that’s kind of positive in sports; you’re emotionally involved with the team, whether you like them or you don’t like them, and the Cowboys became very popular and I think Thanksgiving had a lot to do with it.  It became a fun part of my life, and we had three kids in the Navy and two more in Dallas, so they kind of grew up with the team so we would wait and have our Thanksgiving, it would be after the game, and we got into a good routine that Thanksgiving was going to be after we beat whoever we were playing on Thanksgiving Day.

Brian:  I want to thank you for taking time to talk to us about a real American tradition; it’s been a real honor and pleasure talking to you.

Roger:  OK, Brian, well you have a good Thanksgiving.

Brian:  Thank you very much.  Well, guys, I feel I’ve earned that extra helping of cranberries.  What do you think?

Ed:  I’d just like to lodge a protest.  Why does Brian get to talk to Roger Stabuch, I think that’s so . . .

Peter:  Because Roger’s alive in the 20th century.

Ed:  Thank you Peter.  So tell me this, we know football’s awesome, the NFL is awesome . . .

Peter:  No, I don’t like it that much, to be honest.

Ed:  Well, that doesn’t matter, I’m talking for America here, Peter.  Why does it seem like such a perfect fit for Thanksgiving to have the NFL?

Peter:  Because you can sleep between plays.  I got a theory about that, and that is watching football is both guys vicariously participating in the quintessential American guy activity, with semi-religious overtones, but semi-military overtones; yet, they’re at home, they’ve been well-fed, they may be snoozing a little bit, they’re safely within the home; it’s a womb with a view.


Brian:  We’re going on and on about being the household.  As I understand it, both high schools and colleges played a lot of football in the late-19th century, and usually just the way the season worked out, the big game, sometimes the championship game, would be played on Thanksgiving.

Ed:  Well, that’s true.   In the 1890s, there were games that would draw 10,000 people, college games, on Thanksgiving Day.

Brian:  How do we get to the NFL, this gigantic commercial enterprise, from these high school and college games.  Radio is the first answer.  The Detroit Lions started playing on Thanksgiving as part of a gimmick, it was a radio broadcaster who started this in the 1930s, and what did America’s commercial enterprises come up with for women and children?

Ed:  The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

Brian:  Bingo!

Ed:  When did that parade begin, Brian?

Brian:  The parade, I think, Gimbal’s did the first parade in the 1920s.

Ed:  Were they sort of code for female and child?

Brian:  Primarily.  That was primarily the idea.

Peter:  And the guys are being infantalized, too, because they’re recovering some glimmer of their youth.  Let’s go out and throw the ball around, guys.

Brian:  Yeah, OK, go ahead and make fun of the 20th century.  But what did people do in the early 19th century, Peter?

Peter:  Well, they didn’t have Thanksgiving.  We’ll talk about that later in the show.

Brian:  It’s time to go to the phones, and I sure hope that Dan Marino is waiting out there to give us a call.

[telephone music]

Brian:  Peter, do you have a caller lined up for us?

Peter:  I do, Brian, and we have Mangus calling from Ithaca, New York.  Welcome to BackStory.

Mangus:  Thank you.  I was thinking about this.  I wrote a little book, actually, that is called A Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon.  I wrote about how the American person pardoned a turkey every November, just before Thanksgiving.  I saw this on t.v.  I’m not from the United States, and I was just flabbergasted about what was going on, being an anthropologist, I thought I had to write about it.  I tried to find out lots if I could find out about it.  One aspect has changed actually; maybe you know about this.  It used to be that they took these pardoned turkeys, the main one, and the back up one, the vice presidential one, if you will.  They took it to this children’s petting zoo which is in Virginia, I think it is called The Frying Pan Park, [laughter], and George W. Bush, your President, he made a major change there.  After my book came out in 2006, suddenly announced that they wouldn’t go to The Frying Pan Park in Virginia, they would go to Disneyland.  I was just so curious why Bush would do this?

Peter:  Mangus, you’re going to actually have to help us out on this because you know something. It seems to me that Bush is trying to go national with something that would have been a local event around Washington and Virginia.  The turkey, in other words, is now a by-coastal celebrity.

Ed:  I guess my own inclination would be to expect some kind of under the table payments, I would think a large-scale conspiracy . . .

[BOO’s all around]

Ed:  . . . I just see it as kickbacks of some sort.

Mangus:  There is something commercial about how that turkey pardoning was thought it was a promoted actually by a turkey farmers association, that wanted this as a promotion for the bird.

Ed:  I rest my case.  I have to say that I find it, I wouldn’t say, disturbing, but I’ve always thought that the nation that executes more people than just about anybody, making a big ritual out of pardoning.  People get elected for refusal to pardon criminals.

Peter:  Mangus, we’re feeling very self conscious as Americans because this is really silly, and you came from wherever you came from and . . .

Brian:  Where did you come from, Mangus?

Mangus:  I’m from Sweden.

Peter:  So do they do something nearly as stupid in Sweden that you could share with us.

Mangus:  That’s an interesting point, actually.  I thought they got the idea from America, and they must have been watching this on t.v., they were trying to instigate a new tradition where the Prime Minister would pardon a Christmas pig, because we eat all that pork for Christmas, and it didn’t really take off.  But then looking around on the internet, I noticed that in Virginia, of all places, that there are people who have launched a campaign to add pigs on the pardoning ritual, because they say the first Thanksgiving was in Virginia, and they were eating ham, and not turkey.

Peter:  So the ultimate irony may be the way to market slaughtering more animals is to get the President to pardon your animal, is that what you’re saying?

Mangus:  Well, I think what these people are saying is that the website, I think it’s called “Pardon the Pig” or something like that.

Brian:  But the purpose is to sell more pork.

Mangus:  I think they were also out to correct the history.  They wanted to restore the pig to its rightful place in American history, not to mention Virginia.

Peter:  Mangus, thanks for bringing that offering to our Thanksgiving table.

Brian:  Thanks for talking turkey with us, Mangus.  It’s time for a quick break; when we get back, we’ll ask what the Puritans would have thought about our modern day Thanksgiving.

Peter:  If you’d like to be a caller on a future show, visit us online to see the topics we’re working on.  We’re at  We’ll be back in a minute.


Peter:  This is BackStory.  I’m Peter Onuf, your guide to the 18th century.

Ed Ayers:  I’m Ed Ayers, your guide to the 19th century.

Brian Balogh:  And I’m Brian Balogh, your guide to all things fascinating about the 20th century.   Things like NFL Football, and the Macy’s Parade.  We’re talking today about Turkey Day, and the history thereof.

Peter:  We’re going to take another call now.  It’s from Robin, down in Jacksonville, Florida.  Robin, welcome to BackStory.  Have you got a question for us.

Robin:  Thank you.  What do you consider to be the first Thanksgiving, because there’s a lot of controversy out there.

Peter:  Well, you know, I’m going to bring Ed in now, because he represents the South and he’s going to make some kind of Arisates claim that this is a Virginia tradition.  Am I right?

Ed:  I will rise to the bait.  What he’s referring to is that we have a recorded instance in 1619, two years before Plymouth Plantation was founded, of explicit ceremony of Thanksgiving, on the Berkeley Plantation in Virginia, and the fact that they were all subsequently killed, took some of the luster from that  accomplishment.

Peter:  I’d like to say this, Ed, I know what happened, but Thanksgiving is something that happens all over the Christian world, right, and it’s the tradition, it’s doing it year after year that’s important, and American Thanksgiving began at Plymouth.

Ed:  Yeah, that’s true.

Brian:  Oh, that’s no fun guys.  I thought we were ready to rumble here.

Ed:  And then it grew in New England, and it took decades and decades to get it accepted as a national holiday.

Brian:  I’m going to put in a plug for the Midwest and say that it wasn’t until the Detroit Lions started playing football on Thanksgiving in the mid-1930s that it really became an American holiday.  What do you think about all this, Robin?

Robin:  Just to put my two cents in, actually I have written a book called, America’s Real First Thanksgiving, and it took place in St. Augustine, Florida in September, 1565.

Peter:  Tell us about the first American Thanksgiving.

Robin:  The first Thanksgiving was when Menendez came down to set up a site to protect the treasure fleet for the Spanish Empire.  He chose St. Augustine because of  its  relation to the treasure fleet’s path, and he came also to eradicate the French, and his first sighting was with the Timucua Indians, who were very interested in finding out about the Spanish, because they were kind of hoping they could have some friends to help them with the French.  So St. Augustine was founded September 8, and there was a Thanksgiving that followed.

Brian:  So tell me, this debate turns on tradition as far as I can tell.  Did they repeat Thanksgiving?

Robin:  Did they repeat it?  I honestly have to say I didn’t look that far to see if it was repeated every year.

Brian:  That’s your next book, right, the Second, Third and Fourth Thanksgivings.


Robin:  Great title.

Brian:  Well, tell me something, Robin, what were they actually celebrating there at St. Augustine?

Peter:  Their survival, right?

Robin:  Well, basically.  No, actually, they were celebrating their safe passage.  That was traditional, as you know, they would always say, “Always have a Thanksgiving after a long voyage.”

Peter:  I said they did it all over the Christian world.

Robin:  If it ever became recognized as the official first Thanksgiving, and September 8 was the day, look at the extended shopping holiday we would have.

Brian, Ed and Peter:  What a great idea.  Oh, wow.

Brian:  And in this tough economy, this might be the year to do that.

Peter:  Robin, thanks for this new insight.  You’ve opened our minds.

Robin:  Thank you.

Peter:  I thought it was very, very generous of Ed to introduce the notion of tradition.

Ed:  I was so disappointed.  I was settling in for a really nice fight.

Peter:  I thought that was the generous, the wise, and the dignified . . .

Ed:  Everyone seems surprised that I would take the wise and dignified path.


Brian:  Surprised and disappointed, Ed.

Ed:  Well, Brian, if you really want me to provoke, I can rise to that bait, too.  I’m going to propose that all of this may not be as straightforward as we’re making it out to be.  If it’s only about repetition, then New England’s claim on Thanksgiving Day is a little shaky, too.  Because, as far as I understand, not being a historian of New England, it’s not like those Puritans in 1621 kicked off a tradition that their proud New England descendants, said “Yes, let’s honor the Puritans and the Indians doing lunch in an unbroken tradition year after year”.  It wasn’t until 1863 that the fourth Thursday of the month was declared a day of National Thanksgiving by the then President.

Peter:  That would be Abraham Lincoln.

Ed:  T hat’s right, Peter.  That’s a good command of my century.  Up until then, the various states did have their own official days of Thanksgiving, but they were scattered around here and there, in the various fall months.

Peter:  During the Revolution, certain days were set aside to thank God for guidance on the battlefield.  George Washington even proclaimed days of Thanksgiving as President.

Ed:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re always trying to emphasize that other war was interesting.  I’m talking about that other war, the Civil War.  It was then that Americans started to celebrate Thanksgiving the way we do now: with pies, potatoes, turkey, and more pies, cranberry sauce, and more turkey, and more pies, and this kind of celebration, it’s largely the work of one woman, a  magazine editor named Sarah Hale.  She was a widow from New England.  In 1820, she became the editor of Gody’s Ladies Book.  Despite it’s title, which is pretty ugly, was a hugely popular magazine, and for more than 30 years, she wouldn’t let up.  She published editorials, stories and letter writing campaigns, all to convince her readers in the great cause, that ultimately the government would declare Thanksgiving, as the holiday that this young nation needed the most.

“Seventy years ago, there were only about 3 millions of people under our flag.  Now it waves its protecting folds from the Atlantic to the Pacific and nearly 30 millions of souls are enjoying it’s blessings.  If every state should join in union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty to the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees peace, prosperity, progress and perpetuity to our great republic”

Anne Blue Wills:  I think she really did believe that she was providing a kind of missing puzzle piece to the nation by recommending the celebration of this festival.

Ed:  That’s Anne Blue Wills, a religion scholar at Davidson College, who’s written a lot about Sarah Hale.  She told me if we want to understand why we do what we do on Thanksgiving, we should forget about the Pilgrims, and look instead at what was going on 200 years later in Sarah Hale’s America.

Anne:  She was coming into this position of editing this magazine at a moment when things are still kind of unsettled in the young republic.

Ed:  When are we talking about?

Anne:  This is 1827 when she becomes the editor.  There’s a lot of growth, there’s a lot of change, and she was one of the leaders in formulating a pretty strong notion of what women in this new republic were to do, and the way she described it was women are the virtuous heart of the nation, and women preside over the home, and the home is where the American male, who has to go out into the world and strive and make his way and earn a living, he can come home at the end of the day, and be cleansed by his pure and domestic wife from all of the nasty bargains that he’s had to make during the day.  Thanksgiving for Hale fits into this gender division of work.

Ed:  So what you’re saying . . . you’re kind of blowing my mind, here, because what you’re saying is that this didn’t just sort of naturally grow up, it wasn’t just sort of “Hey, look at all these turkeys and all this pie we could eat”, but instead was a very self-conscious strategy to submit the place of women in the household and the society, and at the same time, celebrate America.

Anne:  And for her, the patriot fathers who, of course she’s thinking New England context, she’s thinking a kind of cooperation, reinforcement of civil and religious authority, those powers working together to build up a society.  I think she wanted to see that kind of cohesion still in the first part of the 19th century.

Ed:  I take it she didn’t have witches in her vision, right?

Anne:  There were no witches, but she did have serious concerns about certain influences in her era.   One of her concerns was a growing population of Roman Catholic immigrants from Europe, and she felt like you could incorporate immigrants into the celebration of Thanksgiving, and really teach them what it meant to be an American, and for her, what it meant to be an American was to be a Protestant Christian.  There are stories in Gody’s that tell the tale of Catholics who hadn’t celebrated Thanksgiving before, but they get visited by a distant relative who comes out to the country and teaches them how to do Thanksgiving, and they think this is such a wonderful thing.  I’m at least going to convert to Thanksgiving, and then it leaves open the possibility that, well they’re on their way.

Ed:  So was she worried about not only Catholics, but urban growth and industrialization.  So this is very much a backward looking, very intentionally invented to be nostalgic.

Anne:  So she wants people to go out into the country and that was one of her prescriptions for Thanksgiving is that you go home and in a moment where increasingly people were living away from their birth place, this was . . .

Ed:  So she wanted to go over the river and through the woods . . .

Anne:  She did.  She really wanted people to experience the rural purity and natural beauty and blessing of the country.  So you would have a roasted bird, or you would have a chicken pie, or you would have gourds and squash, and things that, to her, represented harvest bounty, and you would have a lot of it.

Ed:  And so she’s in many ways ahead of her time, this sort of a localist strategies of our own time.

Anne:  Kind of, except that she wanted everybody to be a New England localist.  She wanted everybody everywhere to pretend like they were enjoying a Thanksgiving harvest feast in New England.

Ed:  Did she have a regional proponent to this.  Did she want this to be adopted by the South, which I’m sure, did not live  up to her standards.

Anne:  She wants this holiday to be celebrated everywhere.  It becomes particularly acute mid-century when things are falling apart.  There are stories in Gody’s and these successor publications, like Ladies Home Journal at the end of the 19th century.  There are stories that are focused on the Southern experience of Thanksgiving, and again, it’s a lot like the stories of the Catholic experience of Thanksgiving, that once you try it, you can’t have just one Thanksgiving, you’re going to want to do it every year.  She saw it as a way of not only, as I said before, integrating women into the national calendar, but integrating Southerners into the national calendar.

Ed:  So, Anne, with all this creation of Thanksgiving in the early 19th century, what would the pilgrims actually think of that holiday if they had been able to drop in on Sarah Hale’s house?

Anne:  Oh, well, I think they would have been overwhelmed with the bounty and I guess the word “fussiness” is in my head.  There’s a lot of, in her instructions to her readers in the magazine, there’s a lot of detail about how to decorate and time tables for preparation, but probably the strangest thing would be that they would have seen this as a kind of presumptive act to have a day, once a year, where you were thankful.  As good Calvinists, they didn’t want to appear presumptuous about God’s mercy, and so, they kind of took everything day by day, and if there seemed to be an occasion for Thanksgiving, they would declare a day of Thanksgiving; and if there seemed to be a day when they needed to take stock, they would declare a day of fasting and repentance.  Their anthropology was such, the theology was such that God did whatever God did out of just grace and mercy.  God didn’t do anything on behalf of humans because humans deserved it.  Humans really didn’t deserve much of anything.

Ed:  So thanking God was a really pretty pretentious thing to do because he wasn’t doing it for you anyway, right?

Anne:  Well, I don’t think they would have begrudged her gratitude.  They would have said that, “Yes, exactly, you should be grateful”, but you should also be attuned to the fact that God not only cares for you and lifts you up for God’s own purposes, but God can punish you and chasten you again for God’s own purposes.  So just to focus on the Thanksgiving part without having maybe another day that was to be the national day of repentance, would have struck them as funny.  Not in a haha way, but in an odd, probably, sinful way.

Ed:  Maybe blasphemous.

Anne: Yes.

Ed:  So you’re willing to say that the pilgrims. . .

Anne: Yes, blasphemous.

Ed:  That’s a pretty radical statement, that’s the kind we like to have here on BackStory.  So, I’m very grateful for you joining us here today.

Anne:  Well, it’s been a lot of fun.  Thanks for having me.

Ed: Anne Blue Wills is an assistant professor of religion at Davidson College. You can find her article about Sarah Hale on our website… as well as an audio slide show we made that features images of Hale and her magazine. It’s all at backstoryradio dot org.
Pretty interesting, huh, guys?

Brian:  That was great.  Here’s my thought:  Even though these gigantic blockbuster holidays are all about the things that we were not, right, so we’re totally divided, we’re fighting a Civil War, so we come up with a holiday that kind of  imposes this New England fantasy of sorts on the entire nation, or at least, presumes that the entire nation is one thing.

Peter:  Brian, it seems to me the important thing is that this is a soft and domesticated version of the harder talk that came from many preachers in the north about how the Constitution needed to be amended so that there’d be a provision that this was a Christian nation inserted in the Constitution under Jesus Christ, and Lincoln resisted that.  His formulations mitigated it, domesticated it, and I think hit the proper object was to evoke what was at stake for all Americans, and if you’re going to give thanks, it would be for the very possibility of thanks in the future.  That is, having holidays like this.

Ed:  It’s a perfect American holiday, because it’s civil religion, it’s the idea of religion without any specific focus of it, right.  He could not, of course, foresee just the millions and millions of immigrants who would be coming from so many places all over the world, but to have devised a holiday in which everybody could feel included.

Peter:  Including all those foreigners who are fighting for the Union at that very moment.

Ed:  That right, but I’m still curious about something:  What was the original Thanksgiving like.  If it’s not Sarah Hale’s fantasy, what’s this deal with Squanto and the Wamponoag Indians, the big festival.  Was that a fantasy too?

Peter:  Well, no, there’s some basis for it, but think about it as a harvest festival, which is very traditional; don’t think about it as Thanksgiving.

Brian:  In any case, we’ve got to take a quick break.  When we get back, we’ll take a closer look at the original harvest festival.  From what I understand, Peter, the Pilgrims would have disapproved, not only the amount of food at the table, they would have been very wary of the kind of food that was there.

Peter:  Brian, grossed out would not be an overstatement.  More on that coming up in a minute.  Don’t go away.


Ed:  Production support for BackStory comes from James Madison’s Montpelier, Marcus and Carol Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, and J.M. Weinberg.


PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf, historian of Early America…

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, historian of 19th century America

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh, historian of everything that’s happened since then. We’re talking today about Thanksgiving. Before the break, we learned that the holiday tradition we celebrate today started in the 1800s – not the 1600s. Sure, there have always been harvest feasts, and there were back in the Pilgrim days, too. But for everything else, those Pilgrims would have been just as likely to give thanks to God by declaring a fast.

ED: As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones. There was some fasting going on down here in colonial Virginia, too. We found evidence of that in a document dated April 6th, 1700.

Jim Horn: A Proclamation being prepared for a Solemn Fast and day of humiliation and prayer for the delivering of this Colony from the great Plague of Caterpillars…

ED: That’s right — caterpillars. In the spring of 1700, they came to Virginia in great numbers, devouring corn and tobacco fields. And so the governor down in Williamsburg declared a day of fasting… and prayer, that the caterpillars would go away. The declaration is being read here by Jim Horn, vice president of research at Colonial Williamsburg, where we recently paid him a visit.

HORN: I do hereby appoint that Friday the 3d day of May next be set apart & observed as a solemn day of fasting and humiliation for the purposes aforesaid.

ED: After more than a year, their prayers were finally answered. Leading the governor to declare, in June of 1701, a public day…of thanksgiving.

Horn: Whereas it has pleased almighty God of his Infinite mercy to deliver this Colony from the late great & raging Plague of Caterpillers with which it was Infested in an humble Sence thereof, it is ordered & appointed that the 5th day of June next be observed and Kept (by all the Inhabitants of the City of Williamsburgh & Parts adjacent) as a day of thanksgiving.

ED: There’s no mention of a fast in this second declaration – simply an order that all the King’s subjects abstain from work and “religiously attend the service of the day.” That might have meant they fasted. But it’s also possible they feasted. The point is that in colonial America, thanksgivings took both forms, and there was no one date set aside on the calendar for observing an annual thanksgiving.

BRIAN: Now that we’ve cleared that up… there was one other question we wanted to answer while we were in Colonial Williamsburg. It involved the ritual most associated with the modern Thanksgiving. The big bird at the center of it all.

Joanne Bowen: The evidence says the turkey could have been on the table…

BRIAN: If there’s anyone who would know what was on the table of colonial Americans, it’s this woman.

Bowen: My name is Joanne Bowen, and I’m curator of zooarcheology. I identify all the bones that come out of the archeological sites throughout the historic area.

BRIAN: Joanne Bowen has been working with bones for decades, in Virginia as well as New England. She’s currently sorting through bones found out back of an 18th century coffee house, that was a popular haunt for members of Williamsburg’s elite.  Our producer, Tony Field, found Bowen in her lab, surrounded by drawers filled with cow bones, pig bones, turtle bones, and yes, big, wild, bird bones.

Bowen: Most sites have one or two or more turkey bones in them…

BRIAN: That’s Joanne Bowen, curator of zooarcheology at Colonial Williamsburg, here in Virginia. You can see pictures of some of the bones in her lab at backstoryradio dot org.

PETER: Joanne’s theory that wild game was more a source of social status than of actual nutrition for colonial elites – well, it got us thinking about that original harvest festival back in 1621. The famous Massachusetts one, where the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians sat down and did lunch. Because for the Indians, wild game was an important source of nutrition. There’s a historian at Texas State University named Jimmy McWilliams, who thinks this difference is key to understanding what happened in the early years of settlement. He told me that the newcomers were totally cool with hunting as a leisure activity – game parks, after all, were a favorite haunt of the aristos back in England. But food for them was the product of careful cultivation – be it vegetables or meat.

Jimmy McWilliams: The Puritans arrived in the New World with a set of very stringent cultural expectation; I mean, they wanted to the the city on the hill, the last thing they wanted to do was to “devolve” into “a savage state”.  If you had to go out and actually hunt for your food, if you had to dive into the woods out of necessity, rather than for leisure purposes, this could easily be interpreted as a sign of cultural weakness or decline.  I think these settlers, when they looked at the Wampanoags grabbing their arrows or grabbing their guns, and running off into the woods for most of the day, they thought, they’re incredibly lazy, the should be home tending crops instead of . . . it is their women who are working in the fields.

Peter:  Let’s talk about corn for a little bit.  Corn has got an enormous cultural significance.

Jimmy:  When the Puritans arrived in New England, of course, we’re very familiar with corn, generally, it was feed for farm animals in England. The Puritans show up and, of course, they find the Native Americas are growing it as more or less one of their staple foods.  That was jarring in and of itself.  This is an observation on the part of the Puritans that we really need to pay attention to, because a lot of times as we try to explain the failure of Native Americans in English to create any sort of bi-racial society.  A lot of times we just immediately look to race, but I think if you look at the example of corn, I think there’s a case to be made that it was agriculture practices in food that played a really important role in creating basic cultural differences, or at least the perception of basic cultural differences.  There’s one more point to this:  a connective point.  It’s not only the corn itself that influenced the way the English looked at the Native Americans, but it was also the way that they grew the corn.  Native Americans had this agricultural method where they would clear a plot of land by girdling trees and burning the soil.  The trees would die and fall; the ash and the soil would sort of work itself deeper into the topsoil, and then they would just throw the seed in; they would throw corn seed, beans, squash, and these crops would grow up together, and it was a remarkable arrangement because the corn provided this natural bean pole, and the beans worm their way up the corn, and the corn leaves would provide shade for the squash, and it was a botanical orgy.  The Indians, of course, this worked, it was incredibly productive, it was not particularly labor intensive; if weeds came in, they let the weeds come in, and here you have this sort of black charred land with trees all over the place, and these crops crawling all over each other, and the English looked at that and said what a disaster, where are the fences, where are the nice lined furrows, where is the land without weeds growing on it.

Peter:  So the English as you just described them were incredibly anal.  They practiced mono-culture; they separated things; they were great at distinctions, what’s a fence anyway, but a way of making a distinction; whereas, Indians seemed to be promiscuous and they mix things together, and how could they be a civilized people.

Jimmy:  You’re right and that was the perception.  Clearly, there was initially anyway that the Native Americans could be incorporated and assimilated into English society.  Interestingly, one of of the basic ways that some of these Puritans began to assimilate these Native Americans was to give them cattle to domesticate, and I think that is an important reminder of just how culturally significant of the act of controlling animals was to the English.  If they could just get the Indians to control their animals, well that’s half the battle.

Peter:  And get the guys out of the woods and back into the fields doing the proper man’s work, which is having a miserable old time plowing up the earth and planting crops.

Jimmy:  The advantage is huge of getting them out of the woods and suddenly, this land become available in some way.  You can then acquire it, and you won’t have Native Americans hunting through.

Peter:  That’s convenience, isn’t it.  So when and how did bagging deer and other wildlife become something essential to our ruggedly individualistic way of life, and when did people overcome the notion that eating trash food was a bad thing to do.

Jimmy:  Well, I think this sort of cultural emphasis on the frontier, and on hunting as being sign of self-sufficiency, I think that became a positive cultural image when the burden of trying to emulate the English was lifted, shorty after the American Revolution.  The American Revolution really changed the dynamics fundamentally, I think, because it created this imperative that you have to redefine how your culture, we cannot emulate the English, of course, people did, but as the nation expanded West, as people moved to the frontier, there were these new expectations that could, instead of being looked upon, could now be praised and somehow pointed to as a source of American identities.  So it’s a bit of an irony that the dependency on hunting that they criticized save in the 17th century in the early 19th century actually became an element of what it meant to be an American.

Peter:  Homemade food, country cuisine.  Jimmy, you’ve given us some fascinating insights into one of the key moments in American cultural calendar, Thanksgiving, and we’re grateful to you.

Jimmy:  Oh, this was fun.

Peter:  Thank you for being on the show.  Jimmy McWilliams teaches American History at Texas State University, San Marcos.  He’s the author of, A Revolution in Eating”, published by Columbia University Press in 2005.


Ed:  Peter, it’s interesting that the very beginning some English dug the Indian way of doing things.  They always had a worry that some English would say, Hey, I kind of like the food snaking up and intertwining.

Peter:  No question about it.  Many people who were captured in Indian raids didn’t want to be repatriated; they like the Indian life.  There wasn’t any waste labor, but you could also say that what that represents in terms of food and its availability, is a kind of feast or famine culture among Native Americans when the food was ripe, you ate it.  You didn’t wait for one day, you saved up stuff after the harvest.  Of course, there were long period during the Winter when Native Americans had to live without, but when it was there, you just went for it.  So the idea of regulating caloric intake as part of that whole anal business of English culture.

Ed:  So what you’re saying, Peter, is that Thanksgiving is like fences; that it’s a way of containing controlling time, as well as space and . . .

Peter:  That’s a great point, Ed. I would say just as you use image, it’s a kind of decorated, ornamental fence, we gusset it up to make us feel good about, to make it feel special, but it is just that, it’s a fence, it’s a marker, it’s on the calendar, it’s a way we organize our lives, and even if we think we’re over eating, it’s a way of regulating eating because every day is not Thanksgiving.

Brian:  Well, guys, it’s time to open the floodgates in that fence and invite in our callers.  Peter, I understand we’ve got one more phone call.  Who’s it going to be?

Peter:  It’s going to be Marty calling from Naperville, Illinois.  Marty, welcome to BackStory.

Marty:  Hi, how are you.

Peter:  We’re good, and thankful to have you on the line.  What do you have for us.

Marty:  I was wondering, has eating turkey, in particular, been an important way to emphasize patriotism in times of increased immigration.

Peter:  Wow, that had lots of different.  I thought I was with you at the beginning . . . a meaty question.


Brian:  Here’s my turkey immigrant thought, Marty, it is true that big city bosses whose positions often relied on massive turnout from recently naturalized immigrants to put him in office, they did deliver turkeys to the wards, to people who were hurting, this is late 19th century, early 20th century, but why it had to be a turkey instead of a ham, I don’t know.

Peter:  Well, turkeys are big; they’re family sized fowl, right, a chicken wouldn’t do it.

Ed:  It does strike me that turkey, I’m guessing, does not violate a lot of provisions of various religious laws.

Brian:  Dietary laws, that’s interesting.

Ed:  I’m just guessing.

Peter:  Marty, we really got to know, because part of our job here at BackStory, is to interrogate people who have had the good fortune to call us, why do you care about this, what are turkeys to you.

Marty:  Well, I work for a turkey company. . .

[collective Ahhhhh]

Marty:  . . . and we have . . .

Ed:  And are you trying to expand your market with immigrants?

Marty:  Actually, we do have at Butterball Turkey Talk Line, we have a Spanish website, with Spanish talkers.  I’m not one of them though.

Peter:  This is the Butterball phone in?  What’s it called?

Marty:  Butterball Turkey Talk Line.

Peter:  So what do people want to know when they call you, Marty?

Marty:  Well, it depends on what week it is before Thanksgiving.  Right now, I’m talking to you from Butterball University, and we’re going to be training our . . .


Peter:  . . . we work there too.

Marty:  Oh, you think I’m kidding.

Peter:  So what do people want to know?

Marty:  At the beginning, people want to know how much to buy, so they need quantity information; and then it goes to how do I thaw the turkey; where do I store it until I’m ready to cook it; how do I cook the turkey; and then Thanksgiving Day, I haven’t thawed it, and how do I thaw it and cook it.

Ed:  And what do we hear in the background?  Is that the Turkey Hotline in action?

Marty:  Well it is actually.

Ed:  That is so cool.  So since this is radio, describe the scene at Butterball University for us.

Marty:  Well, it’s one big large room painted blue and white, big posters on the walls giving approximate thawing times, depending on the size of the turkey and whether you thaw it in the refrigerator or in a tub of water, we have another large chart for approximate roasting times in a 325 oven; there are 55 women here all talking at once.

Ed:  And are they all women?  Would people not have confidence in a male Butterball University grad.

Marty:  No, because that person would have as much knowledge as the rest of us.  We would love a guy to apply.

Peter:  So you don’t have any guys.  Marty, let me ask you, what do you pay, because the pay here at BackStory really sucks.

Marty:  It’s a fair wage.

Peter:  But do you have higher-ranking professors there.

Marty:  We have some women  with Ph.D.’s.

Brian:  It’s a University, Peter, will you pay attention.

Marty:  But you have to have some kind of a foods background; most of the people have at least a home ec degree; some are dietitians.

Ed:  I do  have a question.  Since we are a history show, I need to know are their pictures of Pilgrims and Indians there in the Butterball University.

Marty:  No.  Pictures of turkeys.

Ed:  I just think it would be so spiffy, and so historically contextualized, if you had some pictures of the first Thanksgiving around there.

Brian:  And I also think an insert right next to the giblets to As people unpacked their turkey.

Peter:  Marty, thanks a lot for calling.

Marty:  Oh,  you’re welcome.  Thanks so much for being there, I appreciate it.  Have a great Thanksgiving holiday.

Ed:  Well, that unfortunately, is all the time we have today.  But as always, the conversation continues online, step away from that stove and when you do, come join us online.  I’m really hungry, but I do have enough energy to say that’s at  Have a happy Turkey Day and don’t be a stranger.


Brian:  BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Rachel Quimby, and Catharine Moore.

Peter:  Jamal Milner mixed the show and Gabby Alter composed our theme, Lydia Wilson provided  administrative support.   BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

Brian: Major production support for BackStory with American Backstory hosts is provided by the David A. Harrison Fund for the President’s Initiatives at the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the University of Richmond, Cara Brown Epstein and the W.L. Lyons Brown, Jr. Foundation, UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, and an anonymous donor.
Female Announcer: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation professor of history at the University of Virginia. Brian Balogh is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is President and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.