New-York Historical Society

A Spurious Thanksgiving

Front cover of 1901 edition of Colonial Ways & Days. E162 .S45 1901

In 1900, The Century Co. published Colonial Days & Ways, by Helen Evertson Smith, a description of life in New York and Connecticut during that period. According to Smith, the book is largely derived from papers found  “tucked away under the eaves in old baskets of Indian make, or in open pine-wood boxes, and even in barrels” at the Smith family homestead in Sharon, Connecticut. The book contains a fascinating description of a 1779 Thanksgiving feast recounted in a letter copied into the diary (1779-1781) of Juliana Smith. It has been quoted on numerous occasions since — as recently as 2008. In one case, the author even noted its resemblance to contemporary, 20th century, celebrations.

That author might have taken her own observation as a clue. Anyone who has read eighteenth and early nineteenth century literature may find parallels between Smith’s trove of documents and descriptions of hidden piles of papers on which a fictional narrative is based. This was a common literary device in times when the line between fact and fiction was not always crystal clear.

And so, naturally suspicions have emerged. In a 2005 article, an anthropologist examining the term “redskin” raised questions about a 1699 family letter in Smith’s book (also apparently copied into the diary) which had been regarded as the first use of the term. In a footnote, he also cites a Harvard university historian who casts doubt on the authenticity of the Thanksgiving episode based on language and other details. Perhaps most damning is the fact that neither the 1699 letter, nor the Juliana Smith diary, nor any of the papers described in her book have ever been unearthed. Add the definite literary polish of Smith’s writing and that she published short stories in addition to her historical works and the suspicions mount.

Promotional brochure for Smith's book, with details on the trove of papers she describes as her source. Helen Evertson Smith Papers, MS 574

But since no definitive proof has emerged, we should probably give Smith the benefit of the doubt, while acknowledging that she wrote in period when the footnoting and research conventions of today were as yet unestablished. What it should remind us is that original manuscripts and other primary sources remain integral tools of the historian’s task of accurately, and honestly, assessing the past.

The back cover of the 1901 edition of Colonial Ways & Days. E162 .S45 1901

In a humorous twist, the Helen Evertson Smith Papers contain a letter from The Century Co. that discusses their artist’s shock to learn that the model for an illustration of a candlestick intended for the back cover proved to be “from so recent a period” rather than the Revolution-era as intended. It’s not clear whether they ever managed to correct this anachronism or not.

James Abbot of The Century Co.writing to Helen Evertson Smith regarding the authenticity of the candlestick depicted on the back cover. Helen Evertson Smith Papers, MS 574

 

 

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