UW-Stout News Story

Chancellor explains origins of Thanksgiving traditions

November 20, 2012

Myths and misconceptions abound regarding the history of Thanksgiving, which is Thursday. University of Wisconsin-Stout Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen has spent much of his academic career studying the period of American history that includes the first Thanksgiving.

He answers some questions about the holiday:

Charles W. SorensenWhat is the biggest misconception or myth about the origins of Thanksgiving?

The biggest misconception about Thanksgiving is that it introduced a period of understanding and tolerance among the early settlers about the original Americans, those who were here when the English arrived. It did not. The 17th century would see bitter and savage treatment of the Native Americans. I think too the image of the Pilgrims wearing dark clothes and pointy hats has lived for a long time, and those images simply do not reflect how people dressed or behaved in that period.

Explain the difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Aren’t the Puritans often credited with starting the Thanksgiving tradition?

The Puritans are identified with the founding of Boston and Massachusetts and were reformers who wanted initially to change the Church of England from within, by reforming it. The Pilgrims were basically separatists, those who felt the Church of England was so debased and wicked that they had to leave it, totally separate from it to achieve spiritual purity. Days of “thanksgiving “ were common to all reformed Protestants in the 17th century. Days of thanksgiving were held for a good harvest, surviving horrible storms and the like. So both groups certainly practiced it, but Pilgrims are given credit for what has become our national holiday.

Was the intent of the first Thanksgiving really to give thanks for a good harvest or was it for other reasons?

The Pilgrims celebrated their survival in the new and hostile world, a good harvest and getting help from the Native Americans. Yes, they did celebrate all of this with several days of feasting — on venison, wild game, perhaps turkey, and wild fowl — and probably engaging in games and sporting competition with one another.

Did the Pilgrims really dress the way they have been portrayed: in black with those funny buckles on weird shoes and in black “steeple” hats?

Both the Pilgrims and the Puritans were part of an English culture where colors were very acceptable and widely used, both in clothing and in paint for houses and buildings. So while many did dress in darker, drab and more natural colors, others chose bright colors, such as russet and blue and yellow.

Sorensen received a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and a master’s degree in history from Michigan State. He also holds a doctorate in American history from Michigan State University.

###

View all news items