Most stories of Thanksgiving history start with the harvest celebration of the pilgrims and the Native Americans that took place in the autumn of 1621. Although they did have a three-day feast in celebration of a good harvest, and the local natives did participate, this “first thanksgiving” was not a holiday, simply a gathering. There is little evidence that this feast of thanks led directly to our modern Thanksgiving Day holiday. Thanksgiving can, however, be traced back to 1863 when Pres. Lincoln became the first president to proclaim Thanksgiving Day. The holiday has been a fixture of late November ever since.
However, since most school children are taught that the first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 with the Pilgrims and Indians, let us take a closer look at just what took place leading up to that event, and then what happened in the centuries afterward that finally gave us our modern Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims who sailed to this country aboard the Mayflower were originally members of the English Separatist Church (a Puritan sect). They had earlier fled their home in England and sailed to Holland (The Netherlands) to escape religious persecution. There, they enjoyed more religious tolerance, but they eventually became disenchanted with the Dutch way of life, thinking it ungodly. Seeking a better life, the Separatists negotiated with a London stock company to finance a pilgrimage to America. Most of those making the trip aboard the Mayflower were non-Separatists, but were hired to protect the company’s interests. Only about one-third of the original colonists were Separatists.
The Pilgrims set ground at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating. At the beginning of the following fall, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast – including 91 natives who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. It is believed that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year without the help of the natives. The feast was more of a traditional English harvest festival than a true “thanksgiving” observance. It lasted three days.
Governor William Bradford sent “four men fowling” after wild ducks and geese. It is not certain that wild turkey was part of their feast. However, it is certain that they had venison. The term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl.
Another modern staple at almost every Thanksgiving table is pumpkin pie. But it is unlikely that the first feast included that treat. The supply of flour had been long diminished, so there was no bread or pastries of any kind. However, they did eat boiled pumpkin, and they produced a type of fried bread from their corn crop. There was also no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter. There was no domestic cattle for dairy products, and the newly-discovered potato was still considered by many Europeans to be poisonous. But the feast did include fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums.
This “thanksgiving” feast was not repeated the following year. Many years passed before the event was repeated. It wasn’t until June of 1676 that another Day of thanksgiving was proclaimed. On June 20 of that year the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the good fortune that had seen their community securely established. By unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving. It is notable that this thanksgiving celebration probably did not include Native Americans, as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists’ recent victory over the “heathen natives,” (see the proclamation). By then, it had become apparent to the settlers that the natives were a hindrance to their quest for more land, so the good will they shared at the first feast had long been lost.
A hundred years later, in October of 1777 all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. But it was a one-time affair.
George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed to it. There was discord among the colonies, many feeling the hardships of a few pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday. And later, President Thomas Jefferson opposed the idea of having a day of thanksgiving.
It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in her Boston Ladies’ Magazine, and later, in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Finally, after a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale’s obsession became a reality when, in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was proclaimed by every president after Lincoln. The date was changed a couple of times, most recently by Franklin Roosevelt, who set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Public uproar against this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later. And in 1941, Thanksgiving was finally sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday, as the fourth Thursday in November.