An Invented Tradition

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When you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast this week be sure to give a shout out to the Old Colony Club. And include Sarah Josepha Hale in your expressions of gratitude while you’re at it. Without them, the fourth Thursday of November would be just another workday.“Thanksgiving is a powerful distillation of the dynamics of 17th-century colonialism and what comes later,” said UC Santa Barbara’s Ann Marie Plane, a specialist in colonial North American and Native American history.
“It’s presented in our popular culture and in our educational system as if it was an unbroken tradition, but when you really look at it you see that it’s what historians call an invented tradition,” she added. “It was created out of facts, but it has a much more complicated, much more interesting history with lots of twists and turns, and the story tells you a bit about American history and the struggles the nation has been through already.”
And that’s where the Old Colony Club — and Hale — come in.
We all know the story about the pilgrims of Plymouth Colony coming together Massasoit, paramount sachem of the local Wampanoag confederacy in 1621 to share the harvest bounty. But that gathering, as revealed in texts such as the writings of colonist Edward Winslow, suggests it was not entirely amiable.
According to Winslow’s description of the event, Massasoit arrived with about 90 men — meaning that Native outnumbered the 53 colonists nearly two to one, including women and children. And though they brought food with them because, as Plane explained, even a successful harvest couldn’t provide enough for such a large group, their contingent represented a show of force.
For their part, the colonists used the event to “exercise our arms,” as Winslow wrote. The demonstration of their weapons was intended to “shock and awe” the native people, …

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