Teach American History Blog

The Haziness of Memory

I have been flipping through one of the books that we passed out for the first 4th/8th grade mini-institute. At least, I have been trying to just flip through it; I keep getting sucked in, reading page after page. The book is entitled Thanksgiving: The True Story and was written by Penny Colman. Perhaps some of you were familiar with this book before we passed it out, but I was not. I am familiar with how the stories about George Washington as a child developed (you know, the good ones - "I cannot tell a lie"), and even how an historic figure like Christopher Columbus is revered or reviled depending upon the social norms of the time. Well, everyone thinks they know the story of Thanksgiving; I was not aware of how the nation's collective memory about the holiday had changed over time, and neither did Colman when she set out on her little research project.

If I had ever known that, in the mid 1800s, advocates like Sarah Josepha Hale urged a national celebration of Thanksgiving as a commemoration of the arrival of a relief ship to Boston in 1631, I had forgotten it. It was not until the 1900s that the celebration of Thanksgiving was connected to our now-traditional story of Pilgrims and Indians sitting down to a meal in 1621. And I am sure that I never knew that various locations claimed to be the site of the actual "first" Thanksgiving celebration. Did anyone else know that Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, has the earliest claim (dating from 1541, 80 years before our Pilgrim and Indian tale)? Even Virginia has a date of 1619, when that colony celebrated the arrival of relief citizens. It is fascinating to me that Americans in the 1800s did not care about the 1621 Pilgrim and Indian story while the Americans of the 1900s forgot all about the 1631 relief ship story.

All of this, for me, reinforces what is seems to be very important for what we historians have to do. First, do the research, to detail the past as closely as possible. But second is realize how social attitudes toward events and social norms have changed over time. Almost everyone seemed to want to celebrate Thanksgiving, but with a multitude of reasons why: "regional pride - it happened in Virginia, not in Massachusetts; ethnic identity - it was Spanish-speaking people, not English-speaking people; religious identity - it was religious, not secular; it was Catholics, not Protestants." (9)

My question is this: is this kind of study useful for our students? I enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving narrative, and I know my ten-year old daughter liked learning about it in school last year. Without destroying that, how do we go about explaining how we have adapted history to reinforce certain social norms, whether in the present or the past? 

Posted by Jason Mead - Wednesday, 09/21/2011, 12:48 PM - Comments -

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