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Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

Updated on November 5, 2012

Making Thanksgiving a Holiday

In the USA, the last Thursday of November is reserved as a holiday for Thanksgiving. In modern times we get together with our families and friends, server lots of terrific food and many times say a short prayer or give thanks for what we have.

What people don't know is the idea that we reserve the last Thursday in November was started by a woman named Sara Hale. In 1846, Hale began her campaign to make Thanksgiving a recognized day of thanks. Then some 17 years late Lincoln made the proclamation to recognized a day of Thanksgiving.


Original Thanksgiving

Now in Lincoln's proclamation, there was never any mention of the original Thanksgiving as taught in the schools but we do know it had its roots in giving thanks for the blessings bestowed on those original settlers.

The simplified version is the Pilgrims were so thankful for having their new friends the Indians teach them how to farm and survive they decided to hold a feast. When their new friends showed up with very large families, it became clear that there would not be enough food an the local natives went an brought back more food for the 3 day feast.

While this is cheery and simplified I think you have to look deeper into the story for, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story. The rest of the story comes in 3 parts, first the origins of the pilgrim experiment, next the miracle of Tisquantum and then the real message of thanksgiving.

Part 1. - The Pilgrim Experiment

According to the book by Dr. Azel Ames, The Mayflower and Her Log, the original compact with the merchants who sponsored the Pilgrims called for a system of equal shares from a common store...meaning everyone put in to the common store and each were allotted equal shares. Of course that was after it was split to pay off the merchants. It also meant that everything was owned by for the common good. All the houses built, everything produced was for the common good. Nobody owned anything.

While noble in it's intention, the shared fruits of labor did not bear out great abundance in the first harvest. It was good and unlike the previous winter, they had sufficient stores for the coming winter. These surviors of the first winter had much to be thankful for, so they hosted the local natives in a feast that lasted 3 days to give thanks to God for what they had. There was much to be thankful for including new and unexpected friendships.


Part 2 - The Miracle of Tisquantum

Tisquantum known as Squanto, was an Indian native to the Plymouth region. Shortly after the Pilgrims landed and started to set up, another native named Samoset, who spoke very little English greeted them and fetch Squanto. Squanto spoke English and as a native of the area was filled with knowledge on how to survive the coastal winters. So how was it that a person, native to the Plymouth area, could speak English to these new settlers should come to be at the very place and time he was needed most?

To explain this you have to look back at the life of Squanto. As a young man he was kidnapped by a wicked ships captain named Thomas Hunt. Hunt lured these men to his boat and took them to Spain to be sold as slaves. When in Spain, some local Monks got wind of this plan and bought Squanto out of slavery. Squanto worked for them for a few years and was eventually set free. He made his way to England where he got work as a guide to some traders looking to trade with Newfoundland. His knowledge of local cultures and ability to be an interpreter made him valuable to these traders.

Eventually he worked his way to a ship that brought him back to his home. Unfortunately for Squanto, when he returned his village and people had been wiped out by disease. Nobody had survived. He took up residence with another local tribe until the pilgrims arrived. When the Pilgrims arrived, Squanto took up residence with these new explorers. He showed them how to survive and live in this new land. He helped negotiate with the local natives, telling them which ones to be wary of and which ones they could trade with.

Now think about the miracle of this meeting. A native of the lands, captured years prior, learns English and makes his way back home with no family or tribe left. He is exactly what these new Pilgrims needed because they were ill prepared of their new home. Clearly heaven sent, these Pilgrims must have recognized that providence was smiling upon them for this man to be with them at this time and place. Thanking God for this blessing must have been on their hearts and minds constantly.

Part 3 - The real message of the Thanksgiving Holiday

What is often overlooked in this first Thanksgiving is the reverence to God and the thanks for all the blessings that had been bestowed. These Pilgrims had sought to practice religion as they desired, not as the King of England had desired. They left their home land to secure this freedom. They endured many hardships including sunken ships, a long hard journey across the sea, losing almost half their number in the first winter, surviving starvation, sickness, exposure and more.

They were still indebted to the merchants who sponsored them but within their first year, they were now at a point where they had shelter and stores to survive the winter. They were thankful to God for all the blessings bestowed to them and wanted to share this grace with some of the local peoples. Thus a day of thanksgiving was declare. A 3 day feast ensued. The gratitude and thanks for all the blessings they had been given by God was at the center of this feast. This thread of thanks is what ties together the Pilgrims with Lincoln.

Lincoln's Proclaimation

With Hale's letter in hand, in 1863, Lincoln, delivered the proclamation written by Secretary of State William Seward, declaring the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving. In this proclamation, it acknowledged all the problems facing the country. A civil war, with a cost not only in lives but in wealth and resources spent on destruction and the making of war.

Yet even in these extraordinarily trying times, he found reasons to be thankful. These blessings bestowed to the country by God were the focus of the Thanksgiving proclamation. This day was to be set aside for us to remember all the blessings we had been given by the grace of God.

Lessons from Lincoln & the Pilgrims

There is a common thread between Lincoln's Proclamation and the Pilgrim's first Thanksgiving, both were in the midst of some trying and difficult times. Circumstances were less than ideal and both had suffered or were suffering through great tragedies. Yet in spite of this, they both found reasons to be thankful for the many blessings that had been bestowed on them through the grace of God. They recognized this grace and were compelled to give thanks.

Perhaps we've lost a little of that these days. Too many are focused on what they don't have and what they feel entitled to. Maybe instead we should take these examples and spend time giving thanks rather than dwelling on what is difficult in our lives. Knowing and remembering the origins of Thanksgiving perhaps help with this great lesson.


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    • Tom T profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom T 

      7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      @lucilou - Thanks Mom!

      @Sheila B. - I've never looked at it that way. My sense is that they were humbled with the blessings they had and were quite thankful that they thought they had enough to make it through the coming winter. Thanks for sharing that thought.

    • sheila b. profile image

      sheila b. 

      7 years ago

      I have always seen it that the Pilgrims were looking ahead and saying thank you because we'll have enough to eat. To me, that's a bit different from most people gathering and giving thanks for something in the past.

    • profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Well done, I'm sharing with the grandchildren.

    • Tom T profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom T 

      7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      @stephhicks68 - Glad you stopped by. What a great gift to me that you would share this with your kids. Thank you!

      @Will Starr - Thanks for stopping by. In reading William Bradford's Journal, he does talk about assigning each family a plot on a non-rotating basis and about the benefits of that one family working the land but that decision was made in 1623. If you look at both Bradford's Journal and a letter from Edward Winslow, the very first thanksgiving was held in 1621. There were friendly Indians there and the purpose was to give thanks to God.

      Though in 1621 their harvest was not as bountiful as they would be later on, it was sufficient to provide them stores for the winter something they had not had the year prior. For this they gave thanks to God by way of a feast.

      I think sometimes the story get's mistold in that it is spun that Thanksgiving was a celebration to thank the Indians for showing the Pilgrims how to grow crops and survive. That is not the truth. The truth is they were giving thanks to God.

      Sadly sometimes the story stops there. What it should go on to say is that in 1623, as Bradford said, "Every family was assigned its own plot of land to work and permitted to market its own crops and products. And what was the result? 'This had very good success,' wrote Bradford, 'for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.'

      The net result was that they were able to pay off the debt to their merchant sponsors because of the industriousness of each family being able to keep the fruits of their labor. This is the rest of the the Pilgrims story that sadly never gets taught in schools.

      But the net result is that both the Pilgrims and Lincoln had been through or were going through tough times. Each had plenty or reason to be discouraged. Instead they gave thanks to God for their blessings. This is the true message of Thanksgiving.

    • WillStarr profile image


      7 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      The original intended socialism of the Pilgrims failed, because there was no incentive to do more than was required. It was only after socialism was abandoned, and each farmer kept the fruits of his own labor that the Pilgrims finally prospered, and celebrated their bounty with Thanksgiving.

      Excellent Hub!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 

      7 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Fascinating Thanksgiving history hub! I'm bookmarking this one for my middle school children to read. Rated up and interesting. Cheers, Steph

    • Tom T profile imageAUTHOR

      Tom T 

      7 years ago from Orange County, CA

      @oceansnsunsets - Thanks for stopping by. I find history very interesting especially if you look past what is taught in schools these days.

      The people and events are much richer and often quite different than what kids get taught. Interestingly, the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special actually captures the Pilgrim experience fairly accurately...but of course that was created many many years ago. Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving as well.

    • oceansnsunsets profile image


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Very interesting read, thanks so much for sharing it. I like hubs like this that give background to the history of the United States. It helps us to understand the ideas, beliefs and philosophies that helped to make this nation so great. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!


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