The Puritans were not the first Europeans to settle in North America. The local residents of what’s now Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Wampanoag tribe, were not the best of friends. “This wasn’t a huge historic voyage in 1620,” says Jo Loosemore, curator of a current exhibition “Mayflower 400: Legend & Legacy” on view at the Mayflower’s port of origin, Plymouth, England. “If anything, it was an act of madness because they were going at the wrong time of year into an incredibly dangerous Atlantic.” As the decades pass, our understanding of the origins and meanings of the Thanksgiving holiday continue to evolve. In this issue we focus on the magazine editor who finally convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make the day a national holiday, Sarah Josepha Hale.
Have you ever wondered why American wedding dresses are usually white? Or why people put pine trees in their living rooms at Christmas? Or how turkey, gravy, and pumpkin pie became the expected offerings at a Thanksgiving dinner? All three of these American celebrations exist in their present forms in large part thanks to one woman: Sarah Josepha Hale.
Hale (1788-1879) grew up outside Newport, New Hampshire and began her career as a schoolteacher, but after her husband died she turned to writing to support her five children. In 1837 she became the editress (her preferred term) of one of the most popular magazines of the era, Godey’s Lady’s Book, which had over 150,000 subscribers across both northern and southern states. Starting in 1846, Hale began advocating for a national day of Thanksgiving to be modeled on the traditional meal many families celebrated during the fall or winter in New England. She first wrote to President Zachary Taylor to press her case. For the next seventeen years Hale wrote to every sitting President, finally finding a receptive audience in Abraham Lincoln in 1863 during the middle of the American Civil War.
Sarah Josepha Hale, who by this time was 74 years old, appealed to the President’s desire for national unity. “The annual observance of Thanksgiving Day was, to be sure, mostly confined to the New England States,” Hale wrote, “We are glad to see that this good old puritan custom is becoming popular through the Union…Would that the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day.”
The timing was finally right. Just a few months after the shocking losses at the Battle of Gettysburg and not quite a year after the Emancipation Declaration, Secretary of State William Seward urged President Lincoln to take Hale’s suggestion seriously. Lincoln agreed, and Seward drafted the proclamation.
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States... to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” The emphasis on Christian piety was just one legacy of the New England Thanksgiving tradition. A national holiday could, Lincoln argued, “heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”
Sarah Josepha Hale was thrilled, and filled subsequent issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book with instructions for replicating the Thanksgiving dinners she’d experienced in New Hampshire, with a long table heaped with turkey, gravy, and she singled out pumpkin pie especially as “an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving.”
Nothing in her descriptions of the holiday mentioned Native Americans, the Plymouth Plantation, or any kind of meal shared between the indigenous Wampanoag Indians and the newly arrived colonizers.These narratives were created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of Progressive movements to define American identity and steer the hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to the country toward a similar vision: a nation where people of different religions and traditions came together peacefully to share the wealth of a bountiful land. This version of Thanksgiving became the hegemonic story of the holiday from the twentieth century onward.
In recent decades the Wampanoag people have challenged that narrative. “You can’t have a colony without someone being colonised.” Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation says. By the time the Mayflower arrived in 1620, seventy percent of the tribe had already died in a pandemic of European diseases that decimated native populations across the continent, clearing the way for the Europeans who followed. When the Puritans discovered and took over rich, open farmland that made their harvest feasts possible, it was because the Wampanoag people had been cultivating those fields for hundreds of years.
The Wampanoag tribe did work with the Puritans when they first arrived; their diminished numbers left them few options. But by 1677 the Puritans had hung and beheaded Metacom, leader of the Wampanoag, then had his body drawn and quartered, quashing a native rebellion against years of violence perpetrated by their new English neighbors. The Plymouth Colony mounted Metacom’s head on a spike and kept it on display for the next twenty years.
“These were people who came here for their religious freedom because they couldn’t worship as they pleased in their own country,” Paula Peters says. “Yet when they came to this country they did not seem to have that same tolerance for the people that they met here, despite all that the Wampanoag did to help them.”
Sarah Josepha Hale herself made no claims to the holiday being a celebration of cultural understanding; her focus was unifying a nation divided by slavery and war. Over 150 years later, Thanksgiving is now a national holiday that many Americans now observe simply to celebrate time with their friends and family. For most Native Americans, including those who still reside in Plymouth, Massachusetts, however, the fourth Thursday of November is recognized as a National Day of Mourning.
This year marks the 400-year anniversary of the Mayflower voyage and the founding of the Plymouth Colony in 1620. 108 Pilgrims embarked on the journey; only 51 survived that first brutal winter. Are you one of the estimated 10 million living Americans who descend from one of them? ? Whether you want to prove your descent in order to join the General Society of Mayflower Descendants to honor your ancestors, or just for the pride of knowing your antecedents were part of this pioneering group, you’ll find this article helpful in confirming those ancestral links to those persevering souls.
Anyone interested in establishing their descent from the Mayflower must prove a connection to one of the following passengers: John Alden, Isaac Allerton, John Billington, William Bradford, William Brewster, Peter Brown, James Chilton, Francis Cooke, Edward Doty, Francis Eaton, Edward Fuller, Samuel Fuller, Stephen Hopkins, John Howland, Richard More, William Mullins, Degory Priest, Thomas Rogers, Henry Samson, Myles Standish, John Tilley, Richard Warren, William White,Edward Winslow or George Soule. There were also female passengers aboard, however, they were also the wives or daughters of these men.
The number of generations that must be proven from someone living today, back to the establishment of the Plymouth Colony can seem daunting. However, The General Society of the Mayflower Descendants has documented five generations, or more, of their descendants, making the required research much more manageable. These verified descendants are commonly referred to as gateway ancestors and the genealogies have been published by the society in what are called the Silver Books. Individual books, from this multi-volume publication can be purchased directly from the MayFlower Society. In addition, there are in-progress works, referred to as the Mayflower Families in Progress (MFIP) booklets, or “pink books.” Once complete, the “pink books” will be published as Silver Books.
The Silver Books come with a price that may be beyond the budget of some family historians, but there are alternatives. Many local libraries hold copies of these reference books on their shelves. A phone call to your local library or a search on WorldCat.org will reveal which volumes are held in nearby repositories. Another option is the Mayflower Families Fifth Generations Descendants database, which includes genealogies for the Mayflower passengers, featuring over 500,000 searchable names. Though a subscription is required to access the database, it can be more cost effective than purchasing the actual books.
In seeking out potential Mayflower ancestors, one should begin by reviewing their existing family tree to determine if there was a line (or lines) with a presence in New England during the 18th century. Focus on those ancestors, building the tree out to include all family members. You may also search this database of authenticated Mayflower genealogies, typing in the name of your ancestor who was born before 1910 and look for a match to your ancestors’ information. View the provided descendancy chart, to view the ancestry back to your Mayflower ancestor. Please note that this database is not comprehensive of all Mayflower descendants, but if you are able to find a match, you are one the lucky 35-million global descendants of the Mayflower.
Learn more ways to identify your potential Mayflower ancestors with our article:
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Library of Congress, “Sarah Josepha (Buell) Hale, 1788-1879, oval, half-length portrait,” database with images, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 18 November 2020), image of print engraving, digital ID cph.3a36346; citing, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
AmericanAncestors (https://americanancestors.org/ : accessed 18 November 2020), “Meet the passengers….”
Library of Congress, “The pilgrims signing the compact, on board the May Flower, Nov. 11th, 1620,” database with images, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 18 November 2020), image from b&w film copy negative, digital ID cph 3a02000; citing, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Associated Press (https://apnews.com/ : accessed 18 November 2020), “Genealogies of Mayflower passengers helps find descendants.”
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