Jane Goodwin Austin is the writer responsible for America’s popular version of the first Thanksgiving story. Yet while her version of events has lived on, her name has not. She was born Mary Jane Goodwin in 1831 in Worcester, Massachusetts, to parents who were descended from the Mayflower Pilgrims and very proud of their heritage. Jane was educated in private schools and had an early interest in writing.
At nineteen she married Loring Henry Austin, a man twelve years her senior, whose family was also well-known to New England history. Four children were born to the couple within the next ten years, with three surviving to adulthood. The early years of their marriage were comfortable; Loring was a man of means and the family resided in Concord, Massachusetts, where Jane published Fairy Dreams; or, Wanderings in Elf-Land, a charming collection of stories for children in 1859. A few of her early works were published anonymously, but she soon began publishing as Jane Goodwin Austin or Mrs. Jane G. Austin, possibly to distinguish herself from the English Jane Austen.
Austin was fairly well-established in Concord society. One letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests a casual friendship; she compliments him on his lectures and thanks him for the loan of a volume of poetry, then asks him for a reference to The Atlantic Monthly. Whether Emerson complied is unknown, but Austin’s first Atlantic publication appeared about nine months later.
She was also a friend of Louisa May Alcott. Born less than a year apart and fairly close neighbors, both women were also actively pursuing writing careers. Various histories of Concord recount the two on a boat trip, performing in a theatrical group, and vacationing together with other friends. Austin’s first sensational novel, Cipher, was published in 1869 with a dedication to “My Dear L,” thanking her for her help and wondering what the “boys” would say about the ventures of their “little craft.” Other intertextual references in each woman’s work suggest that they were discussing their writing and sharing ideas. Yet to date, no correspondence between the two has surfaced.
The Austin family fortunes seemed to have dwindled by the late 1860s, and Austin began to publish more often, most likely as a way to supplement the family income. Her work during this period was less polished and more sensational. She experimented in a variety of genres. In addition to her popular works for children, most notably the very unique Civil War novel Dora Darling (1865), and her sensational, Gothic-style fiction, she also published a novel of manners critical of Boston society, Mrs. Beauchamp Brown (1880), which earned her some censure from her church and the community. Undeterred, Austin switched genres once again, and in 1883 she published Nantucket Scraps, a work of regionalist fiction.
By then Austin had already begun to dabble in the genre that would bring her the most fame, but ultimately also contribute to her loss of reputation. As early as 1869, she wrote imaginative short fiction about the Pilgrims, drawing on facts but also on family lore, and filling in with sensational tropes. In 1881, she published her first novel of historical fiction, A Nameless Nobleman, very loosely based on a family ancestor. She became increasingly interested in Pilgrim history, a trend which reflected the nation’s interest, and in 1889, her most popular work, a historical romance titled Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, was published.
The book went into multiple printings, and after her death was republished as a two-volume illustrated set for children, against her wishes. Austin had previously refused to adapt her “learned history” into a book for children. Standish of Standish provides a fairly detailed look at the early days of Plymouth Colony, and Austin draws heavily on historical records and follows the factual accounts closely. In her research, she visited Plymouth landmarks, read the primary sources at the Boston Athenæum, and corresponded with other Pilgrim ancestors.
Yet she also made use of fictional elements to dramatize the story, including a love triangle and witchcraft. She also greatly expanded upon the story of the first Thanksgiving. Firsthand accounts of that event suggest that the local native men, hearing gunfire from the Plymouth settlement, came to investigate, and stayed for the festivities once they discovered the Plymouth men were “exercising their armes” [sic] as part of a harvest festival celebration. In Austin’s version, however, the Pilgrims purposefully invite the Wampanoag to the celebration to thank them for their hospitality and assistance, and the feast takes place outside. Austin even imagines the Wampanoag bringing popcorn to the party, much to the delight of the Pilgrims, who had never seen it before. Her version of the story soon caught on as the authoritative one and was even repeated later in some scholarly histories.
Thanksgiving was already becoming a national celebration, thanks to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale. But it wasn’t until Austin’s novel that the events of the “first” Thanksgiving became connected to the holiday in the minds of the general public. Standish of Standish was on recommended school reading lists well into the twentieth century, around the time that American kindergarten classrooms across the nation began the tradition of the “Pilgrims and Indians” Thanksgiving play.
The success of Standish of Standish encouraged Austin to continue writing about the Pilgrims. She published Betty Alden: The First-Born Daughter of the Pilgrims in 1891, and then reprinted a collection of short fiction (originally published in magazines in the 1860s) on the Pilgrims soon after. Her husband died in 1892, and at that point, her own health was failing as well. After a bought of cholera, she was never able to finish the next installment of her Pilgrim series. Jane Goodwin Austin died on March 30, 1894. The list of pallbearers includes several prominent New England names, including Edward Everett Hale and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, and most notably, honorary female pallbearers, including Julia Ward Howe and Louise Chandler Moulton.
Although Austin’s work continued to be popular with the general public after her death, historians discounted and criticized her historical fiction. As a result, despite her impressive publication record and her impact on American culture, Austin’s name has been lost to history. Aside from a few mentions in various overviews of American women writers and my own dissertation, Austin’s work has received no scholarly attention.
I first learned about Jane G. Austin at a workshop in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 2010, and I was immediately intrigued. Despite her colorful life, distinguished friends, extensive literary output, and enormous impact on American culture, very little was known about her. I’ve been researching her ever since, and she was the focus of my 2015 dissertation. An earlier version of this essay first appeared here in 2017. I’m currently at work on a biography of Austin, including an examination of her friendship with the flamboyant business woman Mrs. Frank Leslie.