Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
That’s the description of the harvest feast from which our American Thanksgiving comes from. It was published in 1622 in Mourt’s Relation, the earliest account of those Mayflower passengers and their settlement (and I copied it from Caleb Johnson’s excellent account and explanation of the event).
I’ve been teaching a lengthy unit on this group of early American immigrants for many years. Among many other activities I have the kids read (and annotate) a few pages from Mourt’s Relation (the title page is below) and have even gone to look at an original copy at NYPL’s rare book room. Probably the best online source for information about this harvest feast and the settlement is Caleb Johnson’s labor-of-love, Mayflower History. I’ve written extensively about this unit on this blog, at my class blog, in books, articles, and elsewhere. One online article specifically about the Mourt’s Relation activity can be read here.
At this time of year there is always a lot of stuff, some unfortunately problematic, happening in schools around this holiday. When I first designed and taught this unit around fifteen years ago I knew of no one doing anything like it. Since then it seems to have become part of many elementary students’ studies, I’m happy to see. That is, they go past the myths and begin to explore the actual documents and information around this complex story. Since 1994 I’ve been taking our fourth graders on an overnight to Plimoth Plantation that has a very sensitive way of teaching visitors about this event. Since our students are so well-informed and relatively free of the stereotypical notions of my youth, I’m surprised when I read of others who still are being taught in the insensitive ways I was taught. And it reinforces my strong belief in the need to teach history in depth, in ways that help children to think hard about complicated stuff, rather than just feed them facts for tests. Unlike many of my peers in this era of tests and NCLB, I’m able to do so and sure hope that as a new era dawns in January that more are able to do as I do.
There are many recent books for children providing thoughtful, carefully researched, and in-depth looks at this holiday including Penny Coleman’s Thanksgiving: The True Story and Catherine O’ Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac’s 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.