By now most of us no longer passively accept the popularized First Thanksgiving narrative. After all, despite its kernels of truth, the story is infused with a mixture of myth and, well, outright fabrication (as we’ve previously seen). Many elements of the story only emerged in the last century too. In fact, historian James Baker has credited Jane G. Austin’s bestselling historical novel from 1889, Standish of Standish, as an important benchmark for subsequent Thanksgiving reimaginings.
We might refine our view even further though to get a clearer picture of Thanksgiving as a product of its contemporary world. After all, we rarely consider that Thanksgiving as we know it, a regular holiday recurring each year to mark a particular event from our national past, was hardly so singular. In the colonial period, and long after both political and religious leaders had the authority to declare days of thanksgiving and “humiliation.” Each typically followed moments of tribulation or prosperity, and promoted mindfulness of God’s role in these events.
So, while Thanksgiving has a largely secular tone today, it grew out of a very established religious convention. In practice, such occasions might include fasting, prayer or feasting, and while these days were commonly observed in the fall and linked to a harvest, they might happen at all times of the year. What’s more, the practice was not exclusive to New England but occurred in other areas of European colonial settlement as well.
Illustrating how the events of 1621 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not so unique in their time is this document signed by Nicholas Bayard on June 30, 1674 declaring the forthcoming July 11th “a general day of thanksgiving” in New York. (See here for a translation.) Per Governor General Anthony Colve, it notes the “renewal of a previous union and alliance with the crown of England.” That statement indicates the especially interesting historical moment marked by this document.
Ten years previous, in 1664, the British had taken New York, then New Amsterdam, only for it to return to Dutch hands in 1672 as part of the spoils in the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674). It was short-lived, however, since the Treaty of Westminster, signed on February 19, 1674, negated the Dutch conquest. Its sixth article spelled out the terms:
countries, islands, towns, ports, castles or forts, have or shall be taken on both sides since the time that the late unhappy war broke out, either in Europe or elsewhere…shall be restored to the former lord and proprietor in the same condition they shall be when the peace itself shall be proclaimed.
So it was that the Dutch lost their prize, yet again.
This was, of course, the age of sail though, so news took its time reaching the colonies. But while many histories point to October of 1674 as New York’s official return to British dominion, this decree confirms that news arrived sooner than eight months, clearly reaching New York by early summer.
It’s worth highlighting the fact that even though New York had been under English rule for several years, and a return was pending, the document is still written in Dutch, a reminder of the depth of Dutch influence there.
The document itself came to the New-York Historical Society in 1844, presented by Rev. Abraham Messler, of New Jersey, a minister and local historian, who had discovered it in “the papers of the late Peter D Vroom of Raritan.” Of it Messler wrote “It is at least a memorial of the ‘olden time,’ and though it may add nothing positive to our information will be valuable as a relic of men whose lives are ‘history.’”
Whatever the manuscript’s historical importance, in 2020 it provides us with useful perspective on Thanksgiving and its history. It might even be argued that, at its heart, our modern Thanksgiving still bears some vestige of its origins, especially in this year of tumult and upheaval. We may choose to spend a few extra moments of reflection, fostering appreciation and hopes that the coming year will allow us to return to something more closely resembling our normal lives.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts