Imagining the First Thanksgiving During the First World War

Harvard University Press
6 min readNov 22, 2018

The cliché of the Ugly American — loud, vulgar, materialistic, chauvinistic — still expresses what people around the world dislike about their Yankee counterparts. In American Niceness: A Cultural History, Carrie Tirado Bramen recovers the history of a very different national archetype — the nice American — which has been central to ideas of US identity since the nineteenth century. In honor of Thanksgiving, here’s an excerpt where Bramen discusses the portrayal and perception of the holiday in the early twentieth century.

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1621” [c. 1912]. Reproduced from The Pageant of a Nation, №6 (Cleveland, Ohio: The Foundation Press, Inc., 1932). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C., LC-USZC4–4961.

Prior to the early twentieth century, Thanksgiving was portrayed as a holiday centered around the New England home or wintry landscape scenes. It was a holiday marked by contemporary themes rather than historical events, and for this reason, it was also a holiday bereft of Indians. In the early twentieth century, however, artists began to reimagine Thanksgiving as an intercultural holiday based in the seventeenth century and epitomized in such paintings as Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1621 (circa 1912–1915). Ferris was a popular historical genre painter, or what was referred to at the time as a “painter historian.” His paintings and illustrations depicted notable moments in U.S. history, such as when William Penn was greeted by friendly Indians, shown in The Landing of William Penn — 1682 (a scene that Helen Hunt Jackson also recounted in A Century of Dishonor). His work was frequently published in Literary Digest and Ladies Home Journal. His painting The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1621 appeared on the cover of The Literary Digest’s Thanksgiving issue in November 1928.

Commissioned during the First World War, Ferris’s painting portrays interracial harmony and intercultural feasting, incorporating Indian hospitality into a national version of American niceness. Ferris memorializes this iconic meal by inverting its foundational power dynamics; it turns the Indians into the guests and the Puritans into the hosts, as the ones who possess the food. Incorporating Indian hospitality through the consumption of food is reminiscent of John O’Sullivan’s bodily metaphors of manifest destiny as “devouring” and “swallowing.” But what is most significant about the painting is that its central figure is a white hostess giving food to Native American men. This figure feminizes the colonial encounter by presenting white American womanhood as the mediating figure between two groups of men — Anglos and Natives. She aestheticizes the settler-Indian relation and, in doing so, removes any tension from it. She is the Oceana figure of Ferris’s scene, linking Indian hospitality with feminine niceness.

The painting illustrates Stephen Turner’s concept of “settlement as forgetting” in that Ferris’s historical depiction of the first Thanksgiving of 1621 is paradoxically a disavowal of history. Forgetting here takes the form of several historical inaccuracies. First, at the original Thanksgiving meal in 1621, Indians outnumbered whites two to one. The Puritans, moreover, were a distinct minority at a primarily Native American feast. Second, the New England Indians who attended the first Thanksgiving would not have worn headdresses (which are Sioux). Third, the style of clothes worn by both the Pilgrims and Indians are not historically accurate. In his notes, Ferris explains that he did not want the Puritans to appear drab in “sad colors” but insisted that the Puritans wore “scarlet, bright green [and] orange.” He did not want to paint dour Puritans. Based loosely on William Bradford’s account (and inflected by W. T. Davis’s 1908 editorial comments), Ferris’s Puritans are a cheerful lot who wore brightly colored outfits and gave generously to the Wampanoags Indians, who are portrayed with Sioux headdresses. These anachronisms allow Ferris to reconcile the contradictions of colonial encounter by turning to myth. Indians are recognizable through familiar stereotypes like the iconic Indian of cigar boxes, and the brightly colored clothing suggests an atmosphere of merriment. The demographics of 1621 were also significantly inverted to depict a white majority and an Indian minority. Even at the first Thanksgiving, or so this painting claims, Indians were outnumbered.

The absences in Ferris’s rendition of Thanksgiving are revealing for what they suggest about ongoing anxieties regarding Indian giving. Edward Winslow’s account of the first Thanksgiving refers to Massasoit arriving with ninety warriors who brought five deer after a successful hunt, and the Pilgrims also had several fowl for the three-day feast as well as a bountiful corn harvest. Winslow underscores in his journal Mourt’s Relation, which is credited with being the first description of the 1621 event, that it was a collaborative and cooperative gathering, not necessarily religious or even monumental. Winslow notes, “[W]e often goe to them, and they come to us.” The success of the Pilgrims’ colonial venture was not yet secure. During the following winter, several more Pilgrims would die from malnutrition and illness. Yet Ferris’s portrayal of this first feast shows the Indians receiving the Pilgrims’ food, not the other way around. According to Ferris’s own notes that are loosely based on Bradford’s text, Massasoit just brought along some popcorn, while the Puritans supplied a full banquet consisting of wild fowl, hasty pudding, clam chowder, cold boiled beef with mustard, along with a bowl of turnips. In fact, one art reviewer in 1924 commented favorably that Ferris’s Thanksgiving depicts the “idea of generosity, the only true kind that gives from frugal resources.” But whose generosity? The reviewer repeats the menu items that Ferris himself had noted from Bradford and remarks that “more aesthetic Indians” brought popcorn, which “we imagine produced some pop-eyes, for it was unheard of novelty to those who had so recently trod the noble rock.” There was no mention of the five deer that Massasoit and his men had brought along. By portraying the Pilgrims as the givers and not the receivers, the painting affirms white sovereignty, independence, and self-sufficiency. The Pilgrims are the figures of abundance, the people of plenty, generously giving to the poor Indians, whose inferior position is reinforced through sitting, while the white men stand around them.

Imagine another version of this painting, where Native Americans would be standing and offering food to the Puritans, who would be sitting. What would such an inversion imply? To show an Indian giving food to the Puritans would be a far more accurate portrayal of the inter- cultural dynamics of 1621, but it would acknowledge something that Ferris’s painting actively disavows, namely white dependency on Indian generosity. Or to put it explicitly in gendered terms, white men needed native men and women to survive. This is the source of national shame that cannot be enunciated because to acknowledge it would mean to admit vulnerability and dependency — the antithesis of normative white masculinity. But it would also mean showing gratitude, the second point that this painting must not depict. Because white people are offering food to Indians, they do not need to say thank you. Thanksgiving here is portrayed as Indian gratitude for white generosity, playing into a colonial fantasy of cultural inheritance that legitimates Anglo possession of the land. By being nice to the natives, white America justifies its occupation.

Hospitality, then, was the vehicle by which Indians were incorporated into a white national discourse. European colonizers arrived as guests and became American. The Anglo guests appropriated Indian hospitality as their own, a point that Ferris’s painting represents: The white colonizer evolves into the gracious host. This painting illustrates what Yael Ben-zvi has called “the fantasy of inheritance in which colonial and U.S. culture is nourished by consuming Native American cultures.” This process of Indian incorporation describes the shift in nineteenth-century race relations from a tripartite structure — red-white-black (as immortalized in Tocqueville’s chapter on “The Three Races in the United States”) — to a white-black binary by the early twentieth century, epitomized in W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous statement in 1903 that “the problem of the Twentieth-Century is the problem of the color-line.” Du Bois’s “color-line,” as Steven Conn notes, reflects the disappearance of Native Americans from the U.S. racial landscape. Redness disappears through the demographic catastrophe of the nineteenth century but also figuratively through its incorporation into mainstream notions of American niceness. The reiteration of Indian hospitality in the primal scene of encounter continues throughout the nineteenth century until the reiteration becomes a cliché, a naturalized part of a national mythology of origins.