Dubious Sources #3

Helen Evertson Smith of Sharon, Connecticut, published Colonial Days & Ways as Gathered from Family Papers in 1909. The book includes a lively description of a Thanksgiving feast held by the family in 1779 in the midst of the War:

Grandmother Smith objected that it were better “to make it a Day of Fasting & Prayer in view of the Wickedness of our Friends & the Vileness of our Enemies. … All the baking of pies & cakes were done at our house & we had the big oven heated & filled twice each day for three days before it was all done . … Of course we could have no Roast Beef. None of us have tasted Beef this three years as it all must go to the Army, & too little they get poor fellows. But, Nayquittymaw’s Hunters were able to get us a fine red Deer, so that we had a good haunch of Venisson on each Table.” Plus pork, turkey, a goose, pigeon pasties, and many vegetables to feed the large gathering of family, friends, orphans, and displaced persons.

The trouble is, although the Smiths of Sharon were real people, none of the descriptions in the book are true and are filled with anachronisms; moreover, the “family papers” have never been found. Helen E. Smith created these scenarios and peopled them with real family members to tell her tale of times gone by; it is what Professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard calls a good example of “Inventing New England.” Thanksgiving was not made a national holiday until late in the 19th century and that is mirrored in this account. When there was a day of Thanksgiving in the eighteenth century, such as Governor John Jay proclaimed in New York after an epidemic, it was a day of fasting. The Helen E. Smith papers, housed at The New-York Historical Society must thus be used with extreme caution.

See In the Words of Women, page xiv.

posted January 14th, 2013 by Louise, CATEGORIES: Primary sources, Reading old documents

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