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The History of Thanksgiving, From Pilgrim to Present

Dan enjoys writing about the origins of the most popular holidays from around the world.

Lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1867

Lithograph by Currier and Ives, 1867

The First Thanksgiving Feast

There is some controversy as to the origin of Thanksgiving in the New World. In 1565, explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé invited local native Indians to a dinner in St. Augustine, Florida, after holding a mass to thank God for his crew's safe arrival. In 1619, when British settlers reached the banks of the James River in Virginia, a proclamation was read commemorating the day as “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

Neither of these dates went any further, however—they were one-time affairs. It is generally accepted that the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, held the first celebration of what was to become Thanksgiving in the United States.

Interestingly, Thanksgiving began as a very religious ceremony with the Pilgrims but, much like Halloween and even Christmas, the religious aspects have faded somewhat. Thanksgiving is perhaps more closely related to Easter in this respect; while it remains a day of prayer and thanking God, the secular aspects have grown for many people.

"The First Thanksgiving," Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, c. 1912-15

"The First Thanksgiving," Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, c. 1912-15

The painting above is entitled The First Thanksgiving and was made by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris circa 1912-1915.

While it certainly gives the feeling of that first Thanksgiving, it is not historically accurate. The pilgrims' clothing is incorrect; the Wampanoag did not wear feathered war bonnets (certainly not at a friendly feast) and would not have been sitting on the ground. In addition, it appears that bread is being served, but all flour was long gone by that time and there would have been no bread available.

The Pilgrims Thanksgiving Feast

In September of 1620, a small (very small by modern standards) ship named the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, bound for the New World. Aboard were 102 passengers—some looking to make a new life for themselves where they could practice their religion in peace, and some looking for prosperity and riches.

It was a treacherous crossing with violent storms that kept them from their intended destination on the Hudson River. Come December, after 66 days at sea, the ship finally made landfall far from where it should be, and dropped anchor off the tip of Cape Cod. A month later, the Mayflower crossed the bay, where the pilgrims (as they are now known) began the work of building the colony of Plymouth.

The first winter was a terrible ordeal. Forty-six of the settlers never saw the next spring, succumbing to the weather and lack of food. Finally leaving the ship in March, the pilgrims moved ashore where they met Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. Squanto worked with the pilgrims through spring and summer, teaching the malnourished pilgrims to grow local foods as well as hunt and fish. He was instrumental in the colony's survival. Squanto also introduced the pilgrims to the Wampanoag, a local tribe, and helped forge an alliance that would last for 50 years.

In November of 1621, after a successful harvest, Governor William Brandford arranged for a feast and invited the Wampanoag to attend, which they did in force; some 90 Indians attended the three-day festival.

There is no record of the exact menu for the celebration, although we know that the governor sent five men out fowling for wild birds and that the Indians brought five deer to the feast. While it is certainly possible that turkey and pumpkin were on the menu, we cannot know that for sure.

"Thanksgiving in Camp" by Winslow Homer, 1862. This was jut one year before Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day.

"Thanksgiving in Camp" by Winslow Homer, 1862. This was jut one year before Lincoln proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving Continues and Evolves

There was no "Thanksgiving feast" in 1622, a year after the first one, but in 1623, the Plymouth colony did repeat the feast and days or periods of thanksgiving feasting spread through other colonies over the next few decades. It was never a formal, united celebration, but it varied by location. A few celebrated nearly every year, some only occasionally, but it was spreading.

In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation by the U.S. government, calling for Americans to express their gratitude for the successful completion of the war of independence and the ratification of the constitution.

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In 1817, New York became the first state to declare a yearly celebration and it was followed by several more. Not all—most of the south was still unfamiliar with the custom. Momentum was building, though, and it was only a matter of time.

In 1827, a magazine editor and writer, Sarah Josepha Hale, began a 36-year campaign to have the entire U.S. formally recognize Thanksgiving. Her wish was finally granted in 1863 during the height of the civil war by Abraham Lincoln, who designated the last Friday of November as Thanksgiving.

In the proclamation, Lincoln asked all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” It was not yet a national holiday, and every president had to renew it each year, but Thanksgiving was celebrated every year on the last Friday of November for many years after Lincoln's proclamation.

By this time Tom Turkey is certainly playing a major part in Thanksgiving.

By this time Tom Turkey is certainly playing a major part in Thanksgiving.

Until, that is, 1939. That year Thanksgiving fell late in the month, on November 30, and merchants wanted more time for Christmas shopping. Franklin D. Roosevelt accommodated them by moving Thanksgiving up one week for that year only, to November 23, but it was not well received. In 1941 congress passed a bill making Thanksgiving a permanent national holiday on the fourth Thursday of each November, which Roosevelt signed into law. Commercialism was (and is) so important that Thanksgiving has since spawned another, unofficial, holiday—Black Friday, with its own history and legends.

Thanksgiving has remained on the fourth Thursday of November since that time; seemingly a good compromise to all. The menu will certainly vary region to region and house to house (rotten egg pie is a necessity for one large family) but turkey is almost always required as part of that great feast.


© 2012 Dan Harmon


Faith Reaper from southern USA on November 28, 2014:

Wonderful hub here, and congratulations on HOTD! I loved reading on all of the history here and had read most of this and knew it, but it is nice to see someone here on HubPages to write about it after thoroughly researching it.

Up ++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

Blessings to you and yours

Subhas from New Delhi, India on November 28, 2014:

Nice retelling the story of this pleasant and enjoyable time. This is going to be more special this time.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on November 27, 2014:

Congrats on HOTD. I was sure Thanksgiving is a Christian holiday and it seems you have confirmed it. Naturally there are always those who believe in nothing yet want to steal others holidays and change them around; lol. Like not allowing us to say Merry Christmas but Happy Christmas; how silly is that? Do they think merry is a Christian word? Maybe it is just about control like the spoiled kids we avoided in elementary school? Their way or no way.

Well...hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on November 27, 2014:

In England we do not have Thanksgiving but there is a fall harvest festival, which is in late October. I find that the American holiday is too close to Christmas and there is no time to recover before we start feasting all over again for Christmas! Loved the Hub!

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on November 27, 2014:

Hi, I enjoyed your Hub about one of my favorite holidays. This was a nice piece of American History and I even learned a little something. Thanks Happy Thanksgiving.

Sara2901 on November 27, 2014:

Enjoyed reading this. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Scott Moore from Birmingham Al on November 27, 2014:

Excellent article and history lesson. I enjoyed every bit of it. You had quite a bit of content here that I didn't know about.

Thanksgiving means quite a bit to our family. I grew up traveling on the holidays and I am prior service and missed a few holidays at home while I was in the service. The simple joy of our family being together, everybody healthy and happy, is something I don't and won't take for granted.

You created an excellent hub with this information.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving Day with your family, sir.


Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on November 27, 2014:

Wow, I had no idea that it involved Abraham Lincoln and was changed by Roosevelt. Quite an interesting story. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on November 27, 2014:

Congrats on HOTD! I learned a lot from your Hub, which was well researched. I have often wished Thanksgiving could be celebrated in the Spring rather than so close to Christmas.

Voted this UP, etc. and will share here and on FB. I hope your Thanksgiving will be a good day for you and yours.

Melissa Sewell from North Carolina on November 27, 2014:

That is awesome! We never really studied the first Thanksgiving in school. Well, we did, but it was more about how Pilgrims took over and the Indians taught them how to cook corn and fish. This was a lot more informative. Thanks! :)

ezzly on November 27, 2014:

Wow thanks for this informative piece ! Especially love the photo of the turkey :)

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on November 27, 2014:

Really enjoyed this well written history. I appreciated thanksgiving more after reading this.

mySuccess8 on November 27, 2014:

While we have read about different versions of the true history of Thanksgiving Day that millions of Americans celebrate, you have given one that is very interesting, comprehensive, and well researched, leading to the present time. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on May 23, 2013:

As with so many of our festivals it would not be surprising that two or more were "combined" into one, or that one morphed into something totally different. While it is pretty well accepted that Thanksgiving began with that meal between Pilgrims and Indians, it is quite likely that Sukkot and Thanksgiving merged into one as time went on.

Writer Fox from the wadi near the little river on May 23, 2013:

There is some evidence that Thanksgiving was a continuation of the Bible festival of Sukkot. Because many of the Pilgrims followed the Bible very closely, this feast might have been what they were celebrating. (I love that turkey picture! That's what a turkey should look like.)

Your Cousins from Atlanta, GA on November 07, 2012:

Enjoyed learning about the origins of Thanksgiving. We love getting the family together each year for turkey and dressing, and have begun making Black Friday a part of our tradition.

Marissa from United States on November 07, 2012:

Excellent history of Thanksgiving! You sure did do your research. :)

Judi Brown from UK on November 07, 2012:

Although I spent a few Thanksgiving Days in the US, we never celebrated it - not sure we really knew what it was about! Thanks for explaining it - if I'm ever over there again, I'll feel far more knowledgeable.

Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on July 18, 2012:

You're more than welcome, GoodLady. Researching this hub was very interesting and although I was familiar with the basics, I learned considerable.

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on July 18, 2012:

Thank you so much for such a nicely told history lesson! I enjoyed it a lot and had no idea all those things happened. Love your picture at the top. It's great!

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