Stephen Lewis: A scholar's perspective on Thanksgiving

Record-Eagle/Jan-Michael StumpStephen Lewis.

Very soon, the third Thursday of November will arrive, and families will gather around a large table. After eating themselves into a post-feast coma consuming turkey, yams, stuffing and pumpkin pie, they will rouse themselves, some to gather in front of the television to watch football while others discuss Black Friday holiday shopping beginning at midnight.

Thus, Thanksgiving 2018, when most people likely will not think much, if at all, about the basis for the holiday. And if they do, they'll perhaps recall something about the Pilgrims and the Indians sharing a Kumbaya moment.

The Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation apparently did sit down with members of the Wampanoag tribe under the leadership of Massassoit, the tribe’s sachem, in the fall of 1621 to celebrate their first harvest after a year during which half of them died.

There are two sources that attest to that event: a brief mention in Gov. William Bradford’s "History of Plimoth Plantation," and a fuller version of the story in "Mourt’s Relation," a pamphlet thought to have been written primarily by Edward Winslow, one of the settlers.

As to the reliability of these two sources it is worth noting that Bradford, like all Europeans at that time, was a thoroughgoing racist as concerned the Native Americans, whom he describes in an early chapter of his history as “savage and brutish men,” and Winslow was writing a 17th-century version of an infomercial in the hopes of attracting more settlers by declaring that things were now going swimmingly in Plymouth.

In either case, we are not dealing with verifiable history as to the details, but that some such an event occurred is beyond doubt. Bradford talks about the Pilgrims gathering together for a communal feast, but he does not mention the Wampanoag joining the party.

Mourt describes Massassoit and his warriors joining the festivities, although it is not clear whether they had RSVP'd to an invitation, or just happened to be in the neighborhood. The Wampanoag’s oral tradition suggests the latter.

Both Bradford and Mourt include fowl in descriptions of the foods at the feast, probably including turkey.

Whatever good feeling might have been generated by that first feast did not last, and the uneasy peace would break out into conflict for the next 50 years, culminating in the mutual carnage of King Philip’s War in the 1670s. When the settlers prevailed in that war, the citizens of Charlestown, Massachusetts issued a proclamation declaring a day of thanksgiving to celebrate their victory.

This proclamation is frequently cited as "The First Thanksgiving," although public days of fasting or feasting were common in New England, depending on whether good or bad things were happening. That the Charlestown proclamation at the end of a brutal war is associated with a holiday that now represents the peaceful coexistence of English settlers and Native Americans is a formidable irony.

Further, King Phillip is the name given to Metacomet, the Native American leader during that war.

He was Massassoit’s son.

The promise of peaceful coexistences associated with that feast some 400 years ago was not realized then, nor does it seem within reach these days.

That Lincoln established it as a national holiday during the dark days of the Civil War as a gesture toward reconciliation could point us toward a reaffirmation of our dedication to that promise of peaceful coexistence and mutual respect, so that it may be, finally, realized.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York, is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include two mysteries set in northern Michigan. He holds a doctorate from New York University in the literature of 17th-century New England.