What message lies behind Jean Leon Gerome Ferris's painting called "The First Thanksgiving" dated 1919?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Ferris' "The First Thanksgiving" helps to illuminate the mythology and commemoration of the Thanksgiving Holiday.  The Wampanog Native Americans of Squanto and Somerset are seated in the foreground of the picture while the Pilgrims are sharing the fruits of their bounty with them.  In the background, Pilgrim settler women are chatting with Native American women, and there is an overall sense of community present within the entire painting.  The theme of such a rendering might be to invoke the spirit of togetherness that the holiday is meant to commemorate.  If one accepts the premise offered as part of our own mythology, the Pilgrims were thankful at being able to survive the harsh conditions of the first year in settlement.  Their dependence on the Native American assistance is the reason why they were being honored in this festival of brotherhood and togetherness.  At the same time, the drawing is a mythologized version of Americana, because the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of settlers throughout its history is as diametrically opposed to the painting as possible.  For their part, the Pilgrims, a splintered group that left England, was never quite at ease with communitarian notions of the good, as demonstrated through the Salem Witchcraft Trials where religion drove a true wedge in between the hopes of community.  Simultaneously, the painting depicts a sense of contentment within the settlers.  The expressions of the characters reflects a sense of happiness and joy within the individuals at their own state of being.  The Westward Expansion of the naion belies this for in this process was a natural restlessness that widened the boundaries and permanently altered the relationships between White Settlers and Native Americans, as well as the connection between themselves and the land.

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