see it clearly
Learn more

Thanksgiving History

Thanksgiving history conjures images of grand feasts, football, cornucopias filled with autumn favorites, pumpkin pie, stuffed turkey with all the trimmings, and of course Pilgrims and Indians. With so many American traditions wrapped up in Thanksgiving Day, it may be useful to try to separate fact and fiction, and get to the bottom of Thanksgiving history.

Thanksgiving History

Discover Thanksgiving History

In the fall of 1621, settlers had a celebration with Native Americans that involved three days of feasting, but it was not called “Thanksgiving Day.” It was however a celebration of the bounty and the good relationship the two communities shared at the time.

Thanksgiving Day was only officially recognized when President Abraham Lincoln announced it was a national holiday to be celebrated in late November.

So, what then did the Pilgrims and Indians actually have to do with the Thanksgiving history?

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims came to what was then known only as the New World were initially from England, but left and moved to Holland in order to find more religious freedom. They were members of a Separatist Church, and soon became disillusioned with worldly life in Holland. They commissioned a company to give them a pilgrimage to the Americas. The Separatists, joined by members of that company, headed to Americas aboard the Mayflower, and landed at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620.

Of the original 102 Pilgrims on the Mayflower, 46 died during their first season. They were ill prepared for the harshness of New England winters. Those who did survive the winter made it in large part because of the help they received from the Native Americans.

The Indians helped the Pilgrims learn how to hunt, plant crops, and work the land for food, shelter, and security. As a result, the fall of 1621 brought a rich, much-needed harvest for the Pilgrims, who decided to celebrate their survival with 91 of their Native American neighbors.

Harvest Celebration

Unlike today’s one-day Thanksgiving celebration, the Pilgrims’ harvest gathering lasted three days. The pilgrims hunted wild ducks and geese, and they used the word “turkey” to refer to any wild fowl they used for their feast.

In addition to wild game, the Pilgrims ate boiled pumpkin and corn breads made from the corn the Native Americans taught them to plant. Because there were no dairy products of any kind, much of the delicacies enjoyed in modern Thanksgiving celebrations most likely did not exist at the time of the Pilgrims and Indians. The Pilgrims also did not have much of the flour used in Thanksgiving baking. Instead this celebratory feast most likely featured venison, dried fruits, as well as a variety of sea foods common in New England, such as lobster, clams, and fish.

As the Pilgrims struggled to continue their settlement, and as relations with Native Americans soured during particular seasons, this feast was not repeated for some time, and never again did it include Pilgrims and many Indians. June 29, 1676 was officially proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, but this time purposely did not include Native Americans, as the Pilgrims were involved in many skirmishes with their Indian neighbors.

The Colonists

In October 1777, all 13 American colonies recognized a thanksgiving celebration, which celebrated their victories over the British. While this celebration only occurred once, George Washington later announced a Thanksgiving Day in 1789. Not all Americans supported the idea, and it was the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale that ultimately led to modern celebrations of Thanksgiving Day. She wrote countless editorials championing the cause of Thanksgiving until in 1863 President Lincoln announced it as a national holiday.

While the precise date of Thanksgiving has changed over the years, it was officially set by Congress in 1941 to fall on the fourth Thursday of each November.