The First Thanksgiving: A Tale of Common Knowledge
(Crowd noises, conversation, chairs squeaking, gradually give way to the sound of a gavel)
CHAIR: Ladies and gentlemen. . . . Settle down, if you please. Thank you. I hereby call to order the Autumn Assembly of the North American Society of Professional Nitpickers. On behalf of the entire group, I’d like to offer our appreciation to the Catering Committee for the delightful holiday repast we’ve just enjoyed. The turkey was roasted to a turn, the pies were superb, and the wine pairings were expertly chosen (aside from the sauterne and sauerkraut, but I shall not quibble with this fine Baltimore tradition).
In our refreshed state, let us now turn to the business at hand: establishing the core content of common knowledge about Thanksgiving. Now, as we all know, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Massachusetts in 1621. . . .
CHAIR: Order! Order! (gavel) The chair recognizes the delegate from Virginia.
VIRGINIA: Without wishing to be disagreeable in any way, I must respectfully contradict that statement. It’s common knowledge in Virginia that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated at Berkeley Hundred on December 4, 1619—a full year before the arrival of the Pilgrims in the New World.
MASSACHUSETTS: Oh, not this again! Sure, a boat load of people landed in Virginia and declared a “yearly and perpetual day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” But everybody knows the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Plymouth Colony in 1621. It’s on TV every year—the Peanuts special, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. You ever see anybody dressed up on a float as Captain John Woodleaf? No! It’s Miles Standish!
VIRGINIA: Apparently the honorable delegate from Massachusetts is unable to do the math—or the history, if he considers a cartoon to be a valid source of historical data on the Plymouth parvenus.
(Angry shouts of “Who you calling a parvenu?” etc., are interrupted by the sound of a pistol shot fired in the air.)
TEXAS: Glad I got your attention, ’cause I can settle this right now. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in El Paso, Texas, by feller named Juan de Oñate. April 30, 1598. Write that down, boys, it’s official. Common knowledge, you might say.
FLORIDA: If we’re going to count non-English settlers, what about my Huguenots? They celebrated a day of thanksgiving in June 1564 for their safe escape from France. It was right near Jacksonville.
MASSACHUSETTS: Yeah, OK, they could be contenders. But where are they now?
FLORIDA: They were all slaughtered by Admiral Menéndez in 1565.
ILLINOIS: Forget this colonial stuff. We celebrate Thanksgiving today because of the federal holiday, which was started in 1863 by Abe Lincoln.
VIRGINIA: George Washington did it first.
NEW YORK: And FDR did it last!
CANADA: Can I just point out that no one is addressing the real problem, which is that you’re all celebrating Thanksgiving in the wrong month. Now in Canada, we . . .
(Cries of “Sit down!”, “So?”, and “But you’re Canada!” drown out the rest of his speech.)
CHAIR: Ladies and gentlemen, there has been sufficient discussion. Let us proceed to the Showing of the References.
(Paper rustles as each delegate produces a list of references to substantiate his or her point.)
CHAIR: From the Showing of the References, it is clear that each of you has a well-supported claim to be representing common knowledge about the first Thanksgiving. Your information is factual, not mere opinion; it is well-established in the community in which it is used; and it is supported by evidence. These are the three criteria for common knowledge, and you have met them. I move that we adjourn to the bar for football. All in favor say “Aye.”
CHAIR: The motion carries. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Moral: Facts that are common knowledge in one setting may need to be backed up by citations in another. Common knowledge is not an opinion (“Tamales are better than turkey”) but a fact (“Thanksgiving is always on Thursday”).
The Showing of the References
Baker, J. W. (2009). Thanksgiving: The biography of an American holiday. Lebanon: University of New Hampshire Press.
Cromack, S. (2011, November 22). A seat at the table of the nation [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://histsociety.blogspot.com/2011/11/seat-at-table-of-nation.html
Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources. (n.d.). Fort Caroline and the first Thanksgiving. Retrieved from http://www.visitflorida.com/en-us/viva/articles/2012/may/2208-fort-caroline-and-the-first-thanksgiving.html
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. (n.d.). The year we had two Thanksgivings. Retrieved from http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/THANKSG.HTML#doc
Kingman, M. (1990). The first Thanksgiving? Retrieved from http://www.texasalmanac.com/topics/history/timeline/first-thanksgiving
Plimoth Plantation. (n.d.). Thanksgiving history. Retrieved from http://www.plimoth.org/learn/MRL/read/thanksgiving-history
Shenkman, R. (2001, November). Top 10 myths about Thanksgiving. Retrieved from http://hnn.us/article/406