Podcast 223 – The First Thanksgiving Special

A road trip from the site of New England’s first Thanksgiving in Phippsburg, Maine, to the birthplace of a beloved Thanksgiving song.


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In Episode 223, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger take a New England road trip to witness the first Thanksgiving in Phippsburg, Maine, then jump over to Newport, New Hampshire, to meet the mother of the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, and finally end in Medford, Massachusetts, to learn the origins of a Thanksgiving song that’s since been hijacked by Christmas. Happy Thanksgiving to all of our legendary friends!

Read the episode transcript.

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Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

[DRIVING IN CAR]

RAY: Happy Thanksgiving, Jeff!

JEFF: Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Ray. So far we’ve been pretty lucky on this drive. The traffic isn’t too bad here on Route 1 in Maine.

RAY: No, it’s moving pretty well. This year AAA predicts that 53.4 MILLION people will be traveling for the holiday in the United States. Thankfully they’re not all here in Maine today.

JEFF: Are you ready for the holiday season?

RAY: I am! The halls are already decked, I’m ready for the food, the music, all of it!

JEFF: When I was a kid I always loved the holiday specials of my favorite shows.

RAY: Of course! Who can forget those timeless shows that helped bring out the true meaning of the holidays. Is that why we’ve come to Maine? For a New England Legends holiday special?

JEFF: It is! We’re heading to Maine to witness the first Thanksgiving…

RAY: Wait wait wait… the first Thanksgiving?! Shouldn’t we be headed to Plymouth, Massachusetts, to celebrate that?

JEFF: Nope… we’re heading to the coastal town of Phippsburg, Maine, to see the first Thanksgiving, then we’ll meet a woman from New Hampshire who is the mother of our modern celebration of the holiday, and we’ll finish with a Thanksgiving song in Massachusetts. Get ready for a Thanksgiving tour through New England!

[INTRO]

JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger, and happy Thanksgiving!

RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 223 – the Thanksgiving Special episode of the New England Legends podcast. Thanks for joining us on our holiday road trip. You know if you’ve been traveling with us for the last four years that we’re on a mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re grateful to have you with us. We hope you’ll like, share, and subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts because it’s free, and we don’t want you to miss a thing.

JEFF: For our Thanksgiving Special, we’re going to kind of weave in two of our previous Thanksgiving stories this week because we like them so much, and we figure some of you have a longer ride to grandmother’s house, so here’s something you can listen to in the car.

RAY: Before we embark on this Thanksgiving special, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor Nuwait Herbals!

JEFF: The holidays have begun, and we’re going to be eating, drinking, and feasting a lot.

RAY: Yes we are.

JEFF: And while we’re all for making merry, be sure to take care of yourself too. This holiday season, Ray and will be sipping Nuwati Herbals Toxaway Tea.

RAY: Toxaway tea promotes healthy skin, body, AND liver for when you’ve knocked back a few too many eggnogs.

JEFF: Toxaway Tea has green tea leaf, fennel seeds, orange peel granules, rhubarb root, ginger root, juniper berries, beet root, and many other natural ingredients to help keep you feeling cleansed after those big nights out and holiday parties.

RAY: Be sure to take the time to take care of your body and soul this holiday season. PLUS Nuwati Herbals has many great products and packages that make great holiday gifts for the people on your shopping list.

JEFF: Let Nuwati Herbals help support your healthy lifestyle. Check out the Nuwati Herbals Web site to see all of their great products AND you legendary listeners get 20% off your order when you use the promo code LEGENDS20 at checkout. Visit Nuwati Herbals dot com. That’s N-U-W-A-T-I Herbals with an S dot com.

[CAR DRIVING / STOP / CAR DOORS]

RAY: Okay, Jeff, every American kid has been taught that the first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, back in 1621. It was a feast between the Puritans and the Wampanoags. So what are we doing in Phippsburg, Maine?

JEFF: Sure, that’s what we’ve been told, that Plymouth was the first… but here in Phippsburg, they also lay claim to the first American Thanksgiving. So let’s head back to the year 1607 and meet George Popham’s colony of English settlers.

[TRANSITION]

[OCEAN WAVES]

RAY: It’s August of 1607, and Captain George Popham of England has just anchored his ship at the mouth of the Kennebec River. It’s here he’ll establish Popham Colony. Another ship arrives three days later, and the combined crew of 120 men get to work constructing Fort St. George.

[HAMMER AND NAILS]

RAY: The fort will be their stronghold as they establish this new colony.

JEFF: While the fort is under construction, Captain Popham sends a survey expedition across Casco Bay to try and make contact with an Abenaki Tribe. The Abenaki inform the newcomers that there are indeed plenty of resources available from fish and game to farmland and trees, but the Natives are not currently interested in any kind of cooperation.

RAY: You can’t blame them… I mean, who are these new people?

JEFF: Arriving in late summer also creates another problem for Popham colony.

RAY: What’s that?

JEFF: There’s no time to plant any crops or grow any food. They’ve missed the growing season. Facing the winter is NOT going to be easy.

RAY: Still, construction continues while others hunt for food to create some kind of stores for winter. All the while, the local Abenaki are keeping an eye on their new neighbors.

[WIND LEAVES]

JEFF: As autumn descends on the new colony, it’s clear there’s not going to be enough food for everyone to make it through the winter. Still, the local Abenaki arrive at Fort St. George with a harvest feast. It’s their way to celebrate the harvest with their neighbors. So they eat and celebrate what they have.

RAY: And the men of Popham Colony are grateful… you could even say they were THANKful…

JEFF: I see what you did there.

RAY: But one big meal won’t get you through these harsh winters. By December, half of the colony sail back to England because they know there’s not enough food here.

JEFF: Over the winter, George Popham dies, as do other colonists. When spring comes, and the resupply ship arrives from England, the remaining men board the ship and give up on Fort St. George. They head home. And that brings us back to today.

[TRANSITION]

RAY: Maybe because the Popham Colony never made it, that’s why we don’t think of theirs as the first Thanksgiving?

JEFF: That’s probably true. 13 years later more ships arrive in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and we know how that story went. A feast that’s been reenacted by school kids, cartoon characters, and storytellers for decades now.

RAY: And in reality 1607 wasn’t the first Thanksgiving either. The Abenaki and other groups had been holding a harvest feast for centuries.

JEFF: Good point. But man oh man we get obsessed with trying to point an exact birthdate on these kinds of things.

RAY: Though those early feasts with pilgrims is the historic roots of Thanksgiving that so many like to point out, our modern idea of this holiday, including a day off on a Thursday of November, is the brain child of a woman born in Newport, New Hampshire, back in 1788. A woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.

JEFF: Of course! Hale is the person who wrote arguably the most famous nursery rhyme in American history. She’s the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

RAY: That’s right! Sarah married David Hale, and the couple had five children together. David died after nine years of marriage, which left Sarah struggling to raise five kids alone. She knew a thing or two about the importance of family and food and stories.

JEFF: So let’s head back to the mid-1800s and set this up….

[TRANSITION]

RAY: In 1827 Sarah Josepha Hale publishes her first novel, titled Northwood: Life North and South, but in London the book is retitled A New England Tale. It’s in this book that Sarah Hale paints a picture of New England as a model for America for prosperity. Part of that model, includes a holiday called Thanksgiving. Her description in the book will become a template for the holiday.

SARAH: A long table, formed by placing two of the ordinary size together, was set forth in the parlor; which being the best room, and ornamented with the best furniture, was seldom used, except on important occasions.

The table, covered with a damask cloth, vying in whiteness, and nearly equaling in texture, the finest imported, though spun, woven and bleached by Mrs. Romilly’s own hand, was no intended for the whole household, every child having a seat on this occasion; and the more the better, it being considered an honor for a man to sit down to his Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large family.

The provision is always sufficient for a multitude, every farmer in the country being, at this season of the year, plentifully supplied, and every one proud of displaying his abundance and prosperity.

The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting. At the foot of the board, a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in the quarter.

The middle of the table is graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, and indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast.

RAY: My God I’m hungry now. How do you score an invite to Hale house?

JEFF: Yeah, she seems like a good person to have in your friend wheelhouse.

RAY: In 1837 Hale becomes editor of Lady’s Book magazine, and under her leadership the magazine grows to one of the largest and most influential periodicals of her time. Sarah Hale is a big, powerful voice in our country.

JEFF: And she’s also a big advocate for this holiday called Thanksgiving. At this point in time there are only two national holidays: George Washington’s birthday, and Independence Day.

RAY: There’s room for more holidays.

JEFF: There is. In 1840, Hale begins her letter writing campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. She lobbies congressmen, she writes letters to governors, Naval admirals, and she writes a letter to the president of the United States.

RAY: She writes a letter to President Zachary Taylor.

JEFF: She writes a letter to Millard Fillmore suggesting Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

RAY: She writes to President Franklin Pierce.

JEFF: And she writes to President James Buchanan.

RAY: But all those letters and words fall on deaf ears for almost 20 years. But all that changes when she writes a letter on September 28, 1863 to President Abraham Lincoln.

SARAH: Sir,

Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book,” to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and – as I trust – even to the President of our Republic, of some importance.
This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

The purpose of this letter is to entreat you, President Lincoln to put forth your Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.

With profound respect

Yours truly Sarah Josepha Hale

RAY: President Lincoln receives Sarah Hale’s letter, and wholeheartedly agreed that the nation does need Thanksgiving. The country is still at war with itself. The Civil War is taking a heavy toll on every state. A day for gratitude is exactly what we need.

JEFF: On October 3rd 1863, just days after receiving Hale’s letter, President Lincoln issues a presidential proclamation declaring the last Thursday of each November to be Thanksgiving Day nationwide. The following month, November 26, 1863, is the first annual federally-recognized day of thanks. And that brings us back to today.

[TRANSITION]

RAY: Okay, that’s pretty awesome, but I noticed Sarah Hale and President Lincoln decided on the last Thursday of the month.

JEFF: That’s right.

RAY: Why Thursday in the first place?

JEFF: Way back in 1789, President George Washington declared Thursday, November 26th as a nationwide day of public prayer and thanksgiving. He was celebrating the new nation called the United States of America and new federal constitution. But this was more of a one-off thing.

RAY: But good ideas have a way of catching on. So some states carried on the tradition, though they never had a single day they agreed upon. Some states held it as early as September, some held Thanksgiving in October, others November.

JEFF: I think Sarah Hale picked the last Thursday of November because back in 1863, that was November 26th, which was a nod to President Washington’s first Thanksgiving. And from there it stuck. One part about Thanksgiving that’s never quite sat right with me is the story of the Puritans and the Wampanoags in 1621. Every school kid learns about that first Thanksgiving, and the story has become intertwined with the holiday.

RAY: Right, and considering what happened to the Native Americans shortly after 1621, it’s not always a pleasant story to tell. In fact, many Native American groups call this day a national day of mourning.

JEFF: That’s true. And though there were grave injustices done in the 1600s and even later, George Washington never mentioned the Puritans and Wampanoags in his first Thanksgiving declaration.

RAY: And re-reading Sarah Hale’s book and letter to President Lincoln, I also see no mention of Plymouth or pilgrims.

JEFF: Exactly. It wasn’t until later that someone tried to tie this holiday to its earliest roots in the country, and that’s how they landed at Plymouth in 1621 – clearly George Popham’s colony in Maine didn’t make the radar at that time.

RAY: It does seem a little silly, because a feast celebrating the year’s harvest appears in countless cultures around the world for thousands of years. 1621 wasn’t even close to the first Thanksgiving.

JEFF: So maybe if we can redefine this holiday back to what it was originally: a celebration of the harvest, and day of gratitude, thanks, and prayer, we can find some joy in it again.

RAY: Here’s hoping. But it’s also worth noting that Thanksgiving is no longer the last Thursday of November, it’s now the fourth Thursday.

JEFF: Right. For the first 80 years of Thanksgiving, there was no problem, then the 1930s rolled around and another holiday was starting to blow up into something pretty big.

RAY: Christmas?

JEFF: Christmas. Retailers complained that when November has five Thursdays, that just doesn’t leave enough shopping time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those complaints reached all the way up to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who agreed that what’s good for the economy is good for America. There was some turmoil between 1939 and 1941 as different states celebrated Thanksgiving on different dates once again, but then on December 26, 1941, Congress passed a bill declaring Thanksgiving will fall on the fourth Thursday of the month, and that’s where it’s sat ever since.

RAY: And all of this began with a woman from Newport, New Hampshire, who knew a thing or two about setting out a feast for Thanksgiving. I’m just glad she chose turkey instead of… a little lamb.

JEFF: Right! Speaking of Christmas, and holidays getting all mixed up… our last stop on this Thanksgiving road trip is Medford, Massachusetts.

RAY: Okay, so if we follow Winthrop Street here through Medford, we’re looking for South Street… but man this Thanksgiving traffic!

JEFF: GPS says it’s just up ahead on the left. So we’ll just cross the Mystic River here…

[TURN SIGNAL]

JEFF: Make a left… Annnd it’s just up there on the right across from those trees.

[CAR DOORS CLOSING]

RAY: What are we looking for, Jeff?

JEFF: Ray, this is the Paul Curtis House in Medford, Massachusetts, it’s arguably one of the most famous houses in not just New England, but the entire United States.

RAY: Okayyy… I can honestly say I’ve never heard of it. And looking at it, I can see it’s a nice house—two stories with four fancy white columns in front and black shutters, but it doesn’t look familiar to me at all. Am I missing something?

JEFF: Though you may not know it by its official name, or even by sight, this, Ray, is Grandmother’s house.

RAY: It’s not MY grandmother’s house. Is it yours?

JEFF: Nope. But Ray this IS Grandmother’s House.

RAY: Okay, Jeff, this is Grandmother’s house?

JEFF: Yes it is, though if we’re going to be authentic and historically accurate here…

RAY: Which we always try to be.

JEFF: We do. Originally this was technically GrandFATHER’s house.

RAY: Okay, that’s still not helping me at all. This seems like a nice neighborhood with plenty of nice homes. What makes this one so special?

JEFF: This will all make sense very soon, because thankfully, we have an old friend joining us on this adventures.

RAY: Hey, it’s Kelley McCauley!

JEFF: She joined us last December way back in episode 18 when we were once again in Medford, Massachusetts, exploring the scandal around the song “Jingle Bells.”

RAY: Kelley, what are you doing in front of this house with your piano?

KELLEY: I thought I’d play a song for you guys.

JEFF: You ready to sing along, Ray?

RAY: How can I do that when I don’t even know why we’re here or what song we’re going to sing?!

JEFF: Give a second. I bet you do know it. Kelley, if you please…

SINGING: Over the river and through the woods,
To grandmother’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh,
Through the white and drifted snow

RAY: Wait wait… isn’t this a Christmas song?

JEFF: No, it isn’t. That change came later. This song got its start as a poem called “The New England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day.” It was originally published in 1844 by Lydia Mariah Child in a book of poems called Flowers for Children, Volume 2.

RAY: I looked into Lydia Child, and she was quite a woman. She was born here in Medford back in 1802. She was an abolitionist fighting against slavery, she fought for women’s rights, Native American rights, and she was a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. She was prolific. She explored many social themes, especially in regard to injustices of the day. And she also took great interest in children though she never had any of her own.

JEFF: If you look at all of her various publications, she covered a lot of ground throughout her life. But the one work we know her best for is this simple poem about Thanksgiving Day. Lydia Child recalled memories of her own childhood when she and her family would take a horse-drawn sleigh over the river…

RAY: That would be the Mystic River.

JEFF: Right, and through the woods. All the way here to her grandfather’s house right here.

RAY: The woods are all gone now, this is a developed neighborhood except for a few clumps of trees by the river bank.

JEFF: She had fond memories of coming here for Thanksgiving as a kid and captured the feeling of that holiday trip to see your grandparents.

RAY: This house, though…

JEFF: What about it?

RAY: It doesn’t seem old enough to fit the time period of Lydia Childs’s childhood.

JEFF: You have a point.

RAY: The Paul Curtis House sits on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the filing, it was built in 1839, which would mean Lydia Childs was 37 years old at the time.

JEFF: Good eye, Ray. Paul Curtis was a local shipbuilder who purchased this land in 1839. But if we check out this plaque right at your feet in front of the house, we get a little more of the story.

RAY: I didn’t even see it!

JEFF: The plaque explains how Paul Curtis built off of the existing farmhouse that was here in the early 1800s to create a much larger dwelling which included this portico that looks a little like the White House in Washington DC with its columns. The house was purchased by Tufts University in 1976 and restored. It now sits on the registry of historic places.

RAY: So grandfather’s house is buried back there somewhere?

JEFF: Right.

RAY: Okay, something else doesn’t sit quite right with this poem or song.

JEFF: What’s that?

RAY: Snow is a prominent theme in the song. “White and drifted snow,” “How the wind does blow,” and things like that. I’m born and raised in New England – not that far from Medford, really, and I don’t usually associate Thanksgiving with snow. I mean I know it happens, but technically winter is still almost a month away.

JEFF: Very true. It’s rare to get any kind of drifting snow around here before January. So I did some digging and learned that during Lydia Child’s youngest years, New England—and really the world—was in something climatologists call The Little Ice Age.

RAY: The Little Ice Age?

JEFF: From roughly 1300 AD to about 1850 the world was in a cooling period. Comparing global temperatures we’re talking almost 1.5 degrees Celsius less than today. And while that doesn’t sound like much it’s enough to make larger ice caps and more snow than rain, plus longer, cooler winters. So snow on Thanksgiving used to be more the norm. What I’m curious about is when Lydia Childs’s poem made the leap from the page and into music.

RAY: That is indeed a mystery. Officially no one knows who wrote the music that goes with the poem. But the song first appears around the 1870s. There is at least one person who lays claim to the music portion.

JEFF: Who’s that?

RAY: In 1897, the Reverend Edward Trotter publishes a book of carols that includes “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Trotter lists himself as the composer in the book.

JEFF: So does that solve the mystery? Was it Trotter?

RAY: The problem is in this same book Trotter also lists himself as the composer for “The First Noel,” as well as several other traditional holiday tunes in his collection. Considering “The First Noel” dates back to the 1820s, it would appear as though the good Reverend is fibbing.

JEFF: And if he’s fibbing about this, who knows what else he’s fibbing about.

RAY: Exactly. So we may never know who wrote the original music, but we do know the song has been adopted and changed over time, but only a little bit.

JEFF: How so?

RAY: The original poem has 12 stanzas, but the song version typically includes four or six of them. To be fair, the poem does get repetitive. Every stanza begins with over the river and through the wood.

JEFF: This poem and song have become part of the American holiday tapestry. The Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special used the song, Christmas has hijacked it more than once, and all of it started based on memories formed inside this house in front of us here in Medford, Massachusetts.

RAY: And what kid can’t relate to those memories of traveling to your grandparents’ house for a holiday dinner complete with pumpkin pie?

JEFF: The song is a legend, which is why we still keep it around, and a big part of the reason we still care about this house on South Street in Medford. What do you think, should we go out on the original two verses of this New England Legend?

RAY: I’m ready when Kelley is…

SING:
Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather’s house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for ’tis Thanksgiving Day.

[OUTTRO]

JEFF: I love that though harvest celebrations have been around for thousands of years, the way we do it on the fourth Thursday of November is uniquely American and born right here in New England.

RAY: We love traditions in this country. We feel this need to tie things back to some ancient time, but the reality is we get to redefine this holiday each and every year.

JEFF: So true. For me, it’s about family, friends, and gratitude. It’s one of those holidays where everybody is welcome, and no one should be alone or go hungry on this day.

RAY: Amen. Thank YOU for joining us on this incredible journey to chronicle every legend in New England. Thank you to our patreon Patrons who kick in just $3 bucks per month and get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.

JEFF: Thank you to Sophie Belanger and Lorna Nogueira for lending their voice-acting talents in this episode. Thank you to Kelley McCauley for helping us out with music.

RAY: A big thank you to our sponsor Nuwati Herbals, and thank you to John Judd, for composing and performing our theme music.

JEFF: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

JEFF/RAY: Happy Thanksgiving!

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