Thanksgiving in the modern-day American consciousness often evokes images of turkeys, balloons, pumpkin pies, and, of course, the inevitable reference to the Pilgrims. More than any other Thanksgiving icon, the Pilgrim emerged as the exemplary American success story: religious refugees banned from openly practicing their brand of Protestantism and desperate to retain their English identity. Arriving on the shores of New England and facing starvation, illness, and imminent death, the Pilgrims survived their first year and celebrated with a well-established tradition in England—the harvest festival—although historians debate what exactly transpired during that first thanksgiving celebration.
Centuries later, the image of the Pilgrim still resonates in our collective national consciousness as the first, and therefore prime, example of what would eventually be known as the American dream. One excellent example of the mid-19th-century depictions of the Pilgrims resides in the New-York Historical Society’s permanent collection, and in honor of Thanksgiving, we’ll examine George Henry Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church, painted in 1867.
Boughton (1833–1905), much like his Puritan counterparts, emigrated from England, although he settled in Albany, New York, as a young child. He eventually returned to England, where he painted North American colonial scenes, ultimately gaining recognition as the “Painter of New England Puritanism.” His work was influenced heavily by history texts, notably William Henry Bartlett’s 1853 The Pilgrim Fathers. In fact, Boughton explicitly referenced Bartlett’s text on the original wooden panel that backed Pilgrims Going to Church, quoting the following passage:
[T]he few villages were almost isolated, being connected only by long miles of blind pathway through the woods; and helpless indeed was the position of that solitary settler who erected his rude hut in the midst of the acre or two of ground that he had cleared. The cavalcade proceeding to church, the marriage procession—if marriage could indeed be thought of in those frightful days—was often interrupted by the death shot from some invisible enemy.
Bartlett’s history informed Boughton’s scene, although several key changes are important to note. Rather than a marriage procession, this somber congregation treks through the wintry landscape for the primary purpose of worship. Led by their minister and his wife, and armed with guns, the Pilgrims persevere in the pursuit of religious and personal freedom, even in the face of both the religious laws of England and the constant threat of attack in New England.
Boughton’s choice of subject matter, and the way in which he deploys it, highlights the distinct national narrative that 19th-century historians crafted around the first national Thanksgiving celebrations in the 1860s. While painted in the grand manner indicative of history painting—a genre that illustrates significant historic events—Boughton’s scene is intimate and private and conveys the fear, bravery, and piety experienced by this small congregation. The heroic moments, then, exist not only in battle scenes—as depicted in works such as Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware—but also in the nameless individual, or group of individuals, who faced visible and invisible threats to practice their religion and lead a life free from persecution. Boughton’s portrayal of the Pilgrim testified to the significance of the ordinary and its role in crafting the “American dream.”
Puritans hold a particular place in the American consciousness, and their story resonated deeply in the 19th century. These religious devotees were simply everyday men and women who chose to embark for a New World in order to achieve personal and spiritual benefit, and American men and women, along with immigrants, could easily identify with this narrative. When Bartlett wrote his 1853 history, scores of immigrants were arriving on American shores in pursuit of economic freedom, and while the Civil War was still seven years away, the partisan discord over slavery was readily apparent. The need to harken back to a collective national origin for the purposes of unifying the country became more pressing. The Pilgrims’ religious motivations to emigrate identified American origins as morally pure, and their Protestantism only reinforced this ideal for many Americans who disapproved of Catholicism. Catholic immigrants, much like the Pilgrims, also sought religious, social, and economic freedom in the United States, and consequently the Pilgrim story resonated with these conflicting narratives Representing the perceived interests of all Americans, the early settlement of the Pilgrims proved to be the perfect narrative to unify the nation, and historians and politicians selected the New England-specific origins to represent the whole of America. In 1863, in the midst of the brutal Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared the first national commemoration of Thanksgiving, stating that the gifts bestowed on the nation should be “reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” Four years later, Boughton exhibited this painting at the London Royal Academy.
The Pilgrims’ experience can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Their perseverance in the face of religious intolerance served as a beacon for Irish Catholics who fled their native country due to widespread famine in the 1840s and 1850s, and for subsequent immigrant groups, such as the Italians, Polish, and Jews who sought economic and social refuge on America’s shores. Yet, the distinctly Protestant aesthetic indicative of the Pilgrim story could also serve as exclusionary, identifying the Amerindian or the Catholic as somehow un-American or undeserving of the American dream. Boughton’s painting highlights this tension. The group treks together, unified against an unseen danger and risking their lives in order to worship, which raises the question to the viewer: Who, or what, is this invisible threat?
When Boughton painted this work, the United States had only begun mending its fractured nation. Faced with civil unrest, Reconstruction, and the aftermath of war, the Pilgrim and the Thanksgiving tradition served as a unifying force that predated even the American Revolution, and represented a moment in the collective past that defined American ideals of personal, moral, and collective fulfillment. Just as the Pilgrims unified against their perceived threat, Boughton and his contemporaries sought to unite a fractured country under the auspices of moral superiority, which for some may have been a call against new outsiders, such as the predominantly Catholic immigrants arriving on America’s shores. Pilgrims, then, served to both unite disparate groups while also identifying outsiders, and it essentially came down to individual interpretation and social context. Even today, historical interpretation, and the social and political climate, necessarily defines how we interpret our collective national origin.
Robert L. Stuart purchased Pilgrims Going to Church in 1868 after its display in the London Royal Academy, and by the time he lent it to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, the painting had been widely disseminated through engravings, and the image of the Pilgrim proliferated in the American consciousness. Today, when we look at paintings such as Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church, we are reminded of Boughton’s ability to convey the ordinary as extraordinary and are emboldened to interpret our national origin beyond the exclusionary measures of the 19th century.
—Written by Kelly Morgan, Curatorial Assistant
See Pilgrims Going to Church on view in our ongoing exhibition Collector’s Choice: Highlights from the Permanent Collection in Dexter Hall.