Jamestown Historical Society

Jamestown Inherited Two Thanksgiving Traditions

This article is part of a series written by Peter Fay forThe Jamestown Press on November 24, 2021.
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Thanksgiving is a time to gather and feast with family and friends while pondering past blessings, and archives of the Jamestown Historical Society reveal many of these such good fortunes.

A worn document titled “Thanksgiving at the Homestead” chronicles the holiday at the Carr Homestead in the late 1800s. “There was pumpkin pie, made of sugar pumpkins fresh from the corn field, where they had been absorbing sunshine all the fall, and last of all, potato pie…and so, another Thanksgiving Day comes to an end. We boys went out and harnessed up the horses for those who lived on the island and soon the carriages went crunching down the lane. And there stood the Homestead, silhouetted against the star-dusted sky just as it has stood for over two hundred years, with lights shining from every window.”[1]

The Carr Thanksgiving was a continuation of centuries of tradition. President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 declared an annual nationwide Thanksgiving holiday, but he only was just enshrining earlier American traditions. Harvest festivals started with the 1621 feast of Plymouth colonists and Wampanoags, and even earlier English pagan holidays predating colonial America.

Indigenous Thanksgivings

On Conanicut Island, harvest feasts predate European settlement. Before the 1658 purchase, a large Narragansett community including “700 bowmen,” or warriors, occupied the island according to Reverend Ezra Stiles of Newport.[2] The size and permanence of this agrarian community was revealed by archaeological digs at West Ferry: 195 burials, mostly from the early 1600s, included funerary offerings of brass kettles, spoons, vessels, and clay pots commonly used in feasts.[3]

Narragansett harvest feasts were described by Rhode Island founder Roger Williams.

“After harvest, after hunting, when they enjoy a calme of Peace, Health, Plenty, Prosperity, [there was] Nickómmo, a Feast.”[4] At this “feast or dance,” there are “sometimes twenty, fifty and hundred, yea I have seen neare a thousand persons at one of these feasts.” Hosts dispensed gifts, and the recipient “goes out and hollows [hollers] thrice to the health and prosperity of the party that gave it.”

Narragansetts invited Williams and other colonists to Nickommos to build alliances. During the contentious purchase of Conanicut in 1658, the Narragansett offered to settle “without any other payment” if colonists would ally with them, “constantly sending up contribucion to their Nickómmos” and oppose their adversary, the Pequots.[5]

Everett “Tall Oak” Weeden, a descendent of a Jamestown family, second from right, observes a tribal dance during a Narragansett Nickommo in September 1960. Weeden, now 85, continues to participate in annual Nickommos as a tribal elder. (Photo courtesy of Tomaquog Museum.)
Everett “Tall Oak” Weeden, a descendent of a Jamestown family, second from right, observes a tribal dance during a Narragansett Nickommo in September 1960. Weeden, now 85, continues to participate in annual Nickommos as a tribal elder. (Photo courtesy of Tomaquog Museum.)

After the sale of the island and the disastrous King Philip’s War, some indigenous people were enslaved, including “Indian boy Tom” and others owned by the Carr family.[6] The Nickommos were moved inland, though many Narragansetts remained near their ancestral burial site over the centuries despite efforts to evict them.

European Thanksgivings

Jamestown’s first European Thanksgiving was in 1687, imposed by royal fiat. Religious separatists and Quakers eschewed all “pagan” holidays. England’s Catholic King James II brooked no puritanism, nor did Edmund Andros, his governor for the “Dominion of New England.”

Andros traveled from Boston in November 1687 with an entourage of 60 men arriving at Boston Neck in Kingstown.[7] He embarked on “four sloops” bound for Newport, likely crossing through Jamestown on his way. The ferry owner, Col. Peleg Sanford, who also owned the land that is today’s Watson Farm, charged three pounds sterling for ferriage.[8] Andros then declared Thursday, Dec. 1, 1687, “a day set apart by his Excellency, the Governor, and Council, for thanksgiving and praise to God.”[9]

After Thanksgiving, the Newport Court convened, including three Jamestown landowners, Sanford, John Fones, and the Quaker Caleb Carr, owner of “Indian Tom.”[10] They brought to account two merchants who “kept not their shops shut” on Thanksgiving, violating government edict.

Early Thanksgiving mandates were heavy-handed but congruous with colonial society. The 1687 Thanksgiving declaration itself sought to unite New England colonies in preparation for King William’s War against the French in Nova Scotia.[11] The “Publick Thanksgiving” of 1691 celebrated success “against all the wicked Machinations of Designs” of the French, reducing them “to their obedience.”[12]

1759 Proclamation of Public Thanksgiving (Courtesy Rhode Island Historical Society, RHix172106)
1759 Proclamation of Public Thanksgiving (Courtesy Rhode Island Historical Society, RHix172106)

A 1759 “Day of Public Thanksgiving” honored “Almighty God in granting very great Success to His Majesty’s Arms . . . against the French and their Indian Allies.”[13] Jamestown men partook in both this Thanksgiving and the war.

As centuries passed, Black and Indigenous slaves were freed or escaped, and the Carr Homestead Thanksgivings became a hallowed tradition. Still, an even older Jamestown tradition also survived. Today, a descendent of a Jamestown family, Everett “Tall Oak” Weeden, an 85-year-old Providence resident, still participates in annual Nickommos as a tribal elder.[14] Mr. Weeden’s fourth great-grandfather, Tobey Weeden, was manumitted from slavery at the Weeden farm in 1786. Tall Oak officiates at annual feasts featuring foods incorporated into most Thanksgiving meals. These Narragansett delicacies have enriched both the American palate and English language. They include “msickquatash” (succotash), “poquaûhock” (quahog), and “askútasquash” (squash).[15]

Bibliography

[1] Watson, Walter Leon [Attributed], “Thanksgiving at the Homestead”, 1947, JHS Archive A2009.602.068.

[2] Stiles, Ezra, Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies of Ezra Stiles 1755-1794 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1916), 100.

[3] Robinson, Paul A., “One Island, Two Places” in Interpretations of Native North American Life (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), 398-411. William Scranton Simmons, Cautantowwit’s House (Providence: Brown University Press, 1970), 54. McBride, K. A. 1989. “Phase I and II Investigations, West Ferry Site, RI 84, Jamestown Elementary School.” Jamestown School Committee, Jamestown, R.I. Sachems were resident as early in the year as March, 1649: Roger Williams, Letters of Roger Williams, 1632-1682 (Providence: Narragansett Club, 1874), 171-172.

[4] Williams, Roger, A Key into the Language of America, 1643 (Bedford, Mass: Applewood Books, 1936), 126-128.

[5]Williams, Roger, Williams Answer to Easton (Providence: Roger Williams Press, 1945).

[6] Indian Tom: see Edison I. Carr, Carr Family Records (Rockton Ill: Herald Printing House, 1894), 19.

[7] Trumbull, J. Hammond, Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, May 1678 – June 1689 (Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Co, 1859), 389f.

[8] Bates, Albert C., “Expedition of Sir Edmond Andros to Connecticut in 1687”, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Oct. 1938, Vol. 48, Part 2, 276-297.

[9] Bartlett, John Russell, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Vol.3 (Providence: Knowles, Anthony & Co, 1858), 234-235.

[10] Bartlett, op. cit., 235. For Caleb Carr as a Quaker, see: Carr, Edison I, op. cit., 16.

[11] Bates, Albert C., op. cit., 276

[12] “By the King and Queen, A Proclamation for a Publick Thanksgiving”, London Gazette, Oct. 29, 1691, 1.

[13] Alden, John Eliot, Rhode Island Imprints, 1727-1800 (New York: R.R. Bowker, 1949), 87-88.

[14] Carocci, Max, “Written out of History: Contemporary Native American Narratives of Enslavement,” Anthropology Today, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jun. 2009), 21.

[15] Williams, Roger, op. cit., 11, 103, 144.

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