Category Archives: Thanksgiving

The two men who almost derailed New England’s first colonies


Peter C. Mancall, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

There is no holiday more American than Thanksgiving – and perhaps none with origins so shrouded in comforting myths.

The story is simple enough. In 1620 a group of English Protestant dissenters known as Pilgrims arrived in what’s now Massachusetts to establish a settlement they called New Plymouth. The first winter was brutal, but by the following year they’d learned how to survive the unforgiving environment. When the harvest season of 1621 arrived, the Pilgrims gathered together with local Wampanoag Indians for a three-day feast, during which they may have eaten turkey.

Over time this feast, described as “the first Thanksgiving,” became part of the nation’s founding narrative, though it was one among many days when colonists and their descendants offered thanks to God.

The peace wouldn’t last for long, and much of America’s early Colonial history centers on the eventual conflicts between the colonists and the Native Americans. But the traditional version ignores the real danger that emerged from two Englishmen – Thomas Morton and Ferdinando Gorges – who sought to undermine the legal basis for Puritan settlements throughout New England.

Over 200 years later, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the first federal day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War, it was a good moment for Americans to recall a time when disparate peoples could reach across the cultural divide. He was either unaware of – or conveniently ignored – the English schemers who tried to chase those Pilgrims and Puritans away.

Tensions mount

The Puritans followed the Pilgrims, founding the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630. There, John Winthrop, who became the governor, wrote that the English wanted to create a “city upon a hill.” The line came from Matthew 5:14, an early example of how these English travelers viewed their actions through a biblical lens.

The growing numbers of English migrants strained the local resources of the Algonquian-speaking peoples. These locals, collectively known as Ninnimissinuok, had already suffered from a terrible epidemic possibly caused by a bacterial disease called leptospirosis and an infectious disorder, Weil syndrome, in the late 1610s that might have reduced their population by 90 percent.

Worse still, in 1636 the Puritans and Pilgrims went to war against the Pequots, whose homeland was in southern Connecticut. By the end of 1637, perhaps 700 to 900 natives had died in the violence, and another 900 or so had been sold into slavery. The English marked their victory with “a day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for the victory obtained against the Pequods, and for other mercies.”

English hostility against Natives has taken a central place in historians’ version of the origins of New England. But though it is a powerful and tragic narrative, indigenous Americans did not pose the greatest hazard to the survival of the colonists.

A new threat emerges

Just when the Pilgrims were trying to establish New Plymouth, an English war veteran named Ferdinando Gorges claimed that he and a group of investors possessed the only legitimate patent to create a colony in the region.

Gorges had gained notoriety after battling the Spanish in the Netherlands and commanding the defense of the port city of Plymouth, on the southwest coast of England. Afterwards, Gorges was in search of a new opportunity. It arrived in 1605 when the English sea captain George Waymouth returned to England after a voyage that had taken him to the coast of modern Maine and back. Along with news about the coastline and its resources, Waymouth brought back five captive Eastern Abenakis, members of the indigenous nation that claimed territory between the Penobscot and Saco rivers in Maine. Waymouth left three of them with Gorges. Soon they learned English and told Gorges about their homeland, sparking Gorges’ interest in North America.

Gorges, with a group of investors, financially backed an expedition to the coast of Maine in 1607, though the colony they hoped to launch there never succeeded.

These financiers believed that they possessed a claim to all territory stretching from 40 to 48 degrees north latitude – a region that stretches from modern-day Philadelphia to St. John, Newfoundland – a point they emphasized in their charter. Gorges remained among its directors.

Kindred spirits

As luck would have it, Gorges soon met Thomas Morton, a man with legal training and a troubled past who had briefly visited Plymouth Plantation soon after the first English arrived. Morton would join forces with Gorges in his attempt to undermine the legal basis for the earliest English colonies in New England.

Morton and the Pilgrims despised one another. By 1626 he had established a trading post at a place called Merrymount, on the site of modern day Quincy, Massachusetts. There, he entertained local Ninnimissinuok, offering them alcohol and guns. He also imported an English folk custom by erecting an 80-foot pole for them to dance around.

The Pilgrims, viewing Morton as a threat because of his close relations with the locals and the fact that he had armed them, exiled him to England in 1628.

Thomas Morton.
Wikimedia Commons

To the disappointment of the Pilgrims, Morton faced no legal action back in England. Instead, he returned to New England in 1629, settling in Massachusetts just as Winthrop and his allies were trying to launch their new colony. Soon enough, Morton angered the rulers of this Puritan settlement, claiming that the way they organized their affairs flew in the face of the idea that they should follow all English laws. The Puritans, looking for an excuse to send him away, claimed that he had abused local natives (a charge that was likely baseless). Nonetheless, they burned Morton’s house to the ground and shipped him back to England.

After a short stint in jail, Morton was free again, and it was around this time that he began to conspire with Gorges.

During the mid-1630s Gorges pushed English authorities to recognize his claim to New England. His argument pivoted on testimony provided by Morton, who claimed that the Puritans had violated proper religious and governing practices. Morton would soon write that the Puritans refused to use the Book of Common Prayer, a standard text employed by the Church of England, and that the Puritans closed their eyes when they prayed “because they thinke themselves so perfect in the highe way to heaven that they can find it blindfould.”

In a letter he wrote to a confidant, Morton claimed that at a hearing in London, the Massachusetts patent “was declared, for manifest abuses there discovered, to be void.” In 1637, such evidence convinced King Charles I to make Gorges the royal governor of Massachusetts.

But the king never followed through. Nor did the English bring the leaders of the colony to London for a trial. The Puritans maintained their charter, but Morton and Gorges refused to back down.

A quick compromise

The title page of the controversial ‘New English Canaan.’
Ancient Lights

In 1637, Morton published a book titled “New English Canaan.” In it, he accused the English of abusing and murdering Native Americans and also of violating widely accepted Protestant religious practices. (Today there are around 20 known copies of the original.)

With good reason, the Puritans feared Gorges and Morton. To make peace, they relented and in 1639 Gorges received the patent to modern-day Maine, which had been part of the original grant to the Massachusetts Bay Company. By then, Gorges’ agents had already begun to establish a plantation in Maine. That settlement ended the legal challenge to the existing New England colonies, which then prospered, free of English interference, for decades.

But Morton wasn’t quite done. He returned to Massachusetts, possibly as an agent for Gorges or perhaps because he had hoped that the situation might have improved. When he arrived local authorities, having seen his book, exiled him again. He retreated north, to Gorges’ planned colony. Winthrop wrote that he lived there “poor and despised.”

By 1644 Morton was dead, along with the scariest threat the Pilgrims and Puritans had faced.

The Conversation

Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Passeth the cranb’rry sauce! The medieval origins of Thanksgiving


Ken Albala, University of the Pacific

How and why did the dishes served at Thanksgiving dinner come to be so fixed?

Many assume that most of them were simply eaten by the Pilgrims during the first Thanksgiving. For this reason, they continue to be eaten today. And it’s true that most of the ingredients are American in origin: the turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, sweet potatoes – even the green beans in the casserole and the pecans in the pie.

Yet we only have one firsthand account of the “first” Thanksgiving – a brief paragraph by Edward Winslow that doesn’t mention any of these foods. And it’s been shown, time and again, that the idea of a unique culinary tradition originating from a feast between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors is more advertising myth than historical truth.

But maybe there is something, nonetheless, that’s very traditional about this meal.

In fact, there may be a very good reason these particular dishes – and even the way we eat the meal – came to be strongly associated with Thanksgiving. The first Americans simply mimicked or adapted the traditional fare, flavor combinations and rituals of Europe, using them to fashion the popular dishes we continue to enjoy today.

Alaye that fesande!

To start, think of when we eat the meal: always in the early afternoon, which is just as a proper dinner would have been served 400 years ago. Back then, supper was a smaller, evening meal. Of course, there are other early dinners that families traditionally observe (especially on Sunday). But Thanksgiving always has been, and continues to be, early. It didn’t simply start sooner to accommodate a football game.

As for the ritual of carving at the table, it’s not something we normally do. But it was positively fashionable when the colonists left Europe in the 17th century. There were even carving manuals replete with illustrations for serving their favorite roasts, which were almost always wild fowl. The only difference is that they would hold the entire bird up in the air to carve thin slices, which would fall gently on each diner’s plate. (With today’s huge, domestic turkeys, it’s understandable that we leave them on the platter.)

There was even a whole language of dismemberment in medieval England: you would lyfte that swanne, alaye that fesande, wynge that partyche, dysplaye that crane, but breke that egryt.

An image from Jacques Vontet’s 1647 guidebook L’Art de Trancher la viande et toute sorte de fruits (The art of carving).

Raspberry sauce and pompion-pye

As for the turkey itself, it was one of the few New World foods that had already gained immediate acceptance in Europe, precisely because of its similarity to peacocks and pheasants, which were among the era’s most fashionable foods. In other words, the Englishmen who landed in Massachusetts didn’t eat turkey because it was the only local food available. Rather, they’d been quite familiar with it back in England, where it was even common to remove the skin and feathers, cook it and serve it with the feathers replaced, as if it were still living – a standard medieval trick.

The side dishes also date back to Europe, with flavor profiles that are actually medieval in origin.

Take cranberry sauce. In medieval Europe, sour fruit sauce with wild fowl was a popular combination, one that balanced a cold and moist condiment with a hot, dry meat. In the mid-17th century, for example, the famous French chef La Varenne served turkey with raspberries.

But the real connection between Thanksgiving and the medieval feast is in the spices. Although today we use the blanket term “pumpkin spice” to characterize variations of cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger (and they show up practically everywhere in cheap artificial form), these flavors were the backbone of medieval cuisine, appearing in a wide array of sweet and savory dishes, from chicken to pasta.

Back then, it simply wasn’t a lavish meal without a riot of spices (which, because they needed to be imported from Asia, were wildly expensive). Today the only one of these spices that stays on the table year-round is pepper. But their pivotal role in Thanksgiving again is a reminder of the tradition’s remote origins.

And many think of green bean casserole as a classic postwar dish – invented in the 1950s as a way to use up all the cans of cream of mushroom soup that had amassed in the pantry. But “French beans” (from America) were already well-known and loved in 17th-century Europe. English Poet Gervase Markham, in 1608’s Farewel to Husbandry, remarks how tender they are when stewed. And Thomas Tryon, a British author of self-help books, writes in The Way to Health, Long Life and Happiness that French beans “far exceed and are much better than other pulses eaten green.”

Candied yams were also a 16th-century staple. In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Sir John Falstaff exclaims that it should rain kissing comfits and hail potatoes, he is actually talking about Virginia sweet potatoes, which had been brought back to Europe in the late 16th century. (These weren’t just candied; they were also considered an aphrodisiac.)

Famed English chef Robert May in the mid-17th-century cookbook The Accomplisht Cook has a great recipe for (sweet) potato pie, which wouldn’t seem too amiss on the Thanksgiving table today (though with cockscombs, testicles and bone marrow would be considered perhaps a bit overgarnished).

If you haven’t tried Hannah Woolley’s world-famous pompion-pye, you haven’t lived.
Foods of England

As for that very American pumpkin pie? In the 17th century, it was already quite common. One of the earliest female cookbook authors, Hannah Woolley, has a recipe for “pompion-pye” with the same spices we use today. She also includes apples, which, incidentally, are also thoroughly English in a pie.

So despite the picture we have of English colonists adapting to strange new ingredients in their new home, most of the recipes – and those we still insist on having at the Thanksgiving table – were already regular favorites.

Remember that when you lift high your (very American) turkey leg, like Henry VIII.

The Conversation

Ken Albala, Professor of History, Director of Food Studies, University of the Pacific

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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