By John Dirlam – Contributing Writer
I was saddened and troubled by Krista DeJulio’s diatribe against Thanksgiving in the last issue of “The 1851 Chronicle.” It is not only historically flawed, but reflects an unjustified cynicism that ignores the opportunities that America has provided to tens of millions of people since the first English settlers set foot on these shores.
While the fate of the Native Americans was indeed tragic, no one could have foreseen the mortality caused by the lack of immunity to European diseases. Moreover, the history of every continent is replete with older civilizations being replaced by newer ones, often with similar results. Before we romanticize the Native Americans to the detriment of our own civilization, let us remember that the warfare among tribes was often brutal in the extreme. And there is growing evidence that they may well have wiped out all the megafauna in the Americas long before Europeans arrived.
With respect to the First Thanksgiving, there is indeed written evidence of a harvest feast in Plymouth, MA (not CT) in 1621, which included Wampanoag Indians who had helped the colonists adapt to their new environment. And, given the religious nature of the Pilgrims, it is a very safe bet that they gave thanks to God just for being alive, as one-half of them had died during the previous winter.
Several Presidents starting with George Washington declared special days of Thanksgiving during the 18th and 19th Centuries. But it was Abraham Lincoln who formalized it as the last Thursday in November in the midst of the Civil War. His action was the culmination of a 30-year campaign led by the famous editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, who believed it should be an annual event. Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the holiday to the third Thursday in November during the Great Depression.
Americans have always found much to be thankful for, especially those who have come here from other countries seeking a better life. My own immigrant grandparents were poor farmers on one side and domestic servants (and war refugees) on the other. None of them had more than a grade school education or spoke English when they arrived. But they worked hard, sent their children to college on scholarships, and learned the language. There was never any doubt in their minds that they had much to be thankful for in their new home. And they had so much less than we do, except when it came to gratitude and appreciation for what America had given them.
I love Thanksgiving.
John Dirlam, Adjunct Professor of History