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Changing Images of Thanksgiving: Library of Congress Primary Sources

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The first Thanksgiving 1621 - image created c1932
The first Thanksgiving 1621 – image created c1932

Helping students explore popular ideas about Thanksgiving is about as traditional as roast turkey and all the trimmings.

It can seem as if colorful images of turkeys, Pilgrims, Indians, and friendly, peaceful gatherings have been part of our history for hundreds of years.  For instance, you may have grown up seeing greeting cards, holiday decorations or television commercials that used these popular graphic elements.  Or perhaps you’re a member of my generation, and your world view was shaped by Thanksgiving pageants at school, where you wore a grocery bag vest and paper feathers if you “played an Indian” and you learned that tensions between native peoples and English colonists were always quickly resolved.

With primary sources from the Library of Congress, you can help students compare and contrast today’s images with those from the past.  Have them explore the images in the Thanksgiving Primary Source Set, looking for elements or ideas that are similar or different from today.  Compare and contrast specific elements and ideas, keeping the date of the primary source in mind.  Why do students think today’s images are the way they are?

Thanksgiving in camp sketched Thursday 28th 1861
Thanksgiving in camp sketched Thursday 28th 1861

Some other ideas for incorporating primary sources from the Thanksgiving Primary Source Set include having students:

  • Examine the Thanksgiving drawings and photographs from the Civil War era, 1911, 1921, and 1942; compare these historical celebrations to those of their own families today.
  • Examine official proclamations for a day of thanks from 1678, 1721, 1789, and 1863; consider the authors, audiences, and purposes of these documents.
  • Analyze The first Thanksgiving 1621 (created in 1932), then work in small groups to decide whether they think this primary source would help them understand the relationship between the Wampanoag Indians and the English colonists; why or why not?  Are any of the elements in this work still popular today?

With people of many different heritages across the nation, the American perspective on Thanksgiving differs for each person.  If you’re like me, you might be surprised at how much your own point of view changes after investigating these primary sources.

We’d love to hear your thoughts about using primary sources from the Library to help students explore the American Thanksgiving holiday.


  1. Great resources!

    The Stanford History Education Group created an excellent assessment activity, using the 1932 painting above, “The First Thanksgiving 1621”.

    For middle and high school students, I also highly recommend the satirical camp skit scene from Addams Family Values. (It’s on YouTube.) Because this skit is so over the top–including Pocahantas, for example–it is a powerful means to explore and explode myths about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. Thanks to Alice Nash, UMass Department of History, for introducing this clip to me as a teaching tool.

    Rich Cairn –

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