As every school child knows, the first Thanksgiving dinner was held in 1621. Puritan colonists at Plymouth invited the local Native American tribe, the Wampanoags, to share a harvest meal. The colonists had a rough go getting established, and nearly half died in their first winter. The harvest dinner was organized to thank the Wampanoags for the tribe’s gift of food and sharing of food knowledge that made all the difference in the colonists’ survival.
However Thanksgiving as a national holiday was not established until 1863 by Abraham Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War. Here is a look at some artworks associated with this holiday.
Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving
Thomas Nast was America’s first great cartoonist. In the 19th century, he regularly contributed cartoons to Harper’s magazine. Nast’s vision of Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving (above) has been called “utopian.” This Nast woodcut first published in 1869 shows men, women, and children, whites, blacks, Chinese, and a lady with a lovely Spanish mantilla together around the Thanksgiving table. A “Universal Suffrage” sign was clearly visible.
Nast’s view was not well received in certain areas of the U.S. The Wasp, a San Francisco publication, reinterpreted Nast’s utopian vision in a much more exclusionary way. Sitting at the table are only white men, blacks are serving, and the Chinese are in the kitchen. Only one woman is visible and she’s a cook with a ladle in her hands. A few years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Universal suffrage for blacks and women was still just an idea.
By 1895, we were in the midst of the Art Nouveau movement. Here is Will Bradley’s cover for a Thanksgiving chapbook showing a woman and her mirror image holding Thanksgiving food trays. (right)
The historical reality is that not long after this first Thanksgiving, British and American colonists began an extermination campaign against the natives by giving them smallpox-infected blankets, or imprisoning them in wooden stockades then setting the stockades on fire, or just shooting, knifing, or otherwise killing them. By the time Ferris’s and Brownscombe’s paintings were created, Native American tribes had been “removed” to Oklahoma territory, then herded onto "reservations." Attempts were made to “force assimilation,” and when that didn’t work, the U.S. Army was sent to kill the warriors and their families in great battles or in massacres (aka genocide) at places like Sand Creek or Wounded Knee. Too bad those Indians didn’t build a wall when they saw the Puritans coming!
Norman Rockwell became very famous for his portrayals of American family life. This painting, Freedom from Want (left), was painted in 1943 in the midst of World War II. The focus had changed to the family. No Indians in sight.
As for me, one side of my family came with the first round of settlers at the Jamestown colony, and the other side came across the border in 1912 from the Alps in northern Italy. Our Thanksgiving table included lasagna and other Italian dishes.
I have lots to be thankful for, not least of which is the wonderful Sonoran Desert where I live. The light here is superb and it changes constantly, making for subtle and beautiful colors. Here is one of my interpretations of the desert light, Sonoran Sky Islands, Early Dawn. (oil, 30”x 30”)