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The History of Thanksgiving-Traditional Origins You May Not Know

Updated on January 20, 2023
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Cygnet Brown is a high school and middle school substitute teacher. She is the author of fourteen books and a long-time gardener.

The History of Thanksgiving Started Long Before 1621

Every November, we celebrate Thanksgiving to commemorate that in 1620 pilgrims, numbering 102 individuals decided to settle on the coast of Massachusetts. We know that their population was to almost half their number within the next year. The following autumn, they celebrated the first Thanksgiving with their Indian neighbors. We call it the first Thanksgiving, but in fact, the roots of that "first" Thanksgiving occurred long before 1621.

English Traditions

The traditional celebration of Thanksgiving reaches back to New England's imitation of the manorial system set up after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. As you will notice, the pilgrims' first Thanksgiving was not observed immediately after harvest. Harvest festivals would spring later in American life in the form of special harvest-home services in rural American churches in the month of September or October. Thanksgiving was selected to fall during what was known as Indian summer. Indian summer usually fell somewhere between October 15 and December 15. This same season occurs in England and is known as Martinmas. During Martinmas, yeomen made their annual slaughter of hogs, oxen, and sheep, and held their meat feasts. This period of Thanksgiving carried over into American Tradition as a feast time commemorating the meat harvest around the end of November when cool temperatures kept butchered meat from spoiling.

The Indian Guests

The pilgrims settled on the site of a Wampanoag village that had been abandoned four years earlier after a deadly plague outbreak was spread by European traders who visited the area in 1616. Before 1616, the Wampanoag numbered 50,000 to 100,000 and occupied 69 villages scattered throughout southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. Up to two-thirds of the Wampanoag, population was killed by this plague. When the Wampanoag watched the Mayflower’s passengers come ashore at Patuxet, they did not see them as a threat because the white man had brought their women and children. The Wampanoag believed that if the white man brought their women and children to their shores, they must have been a peaceful people so they did not feel threatened by their presence and therefore did not attack them.

The pilgrims did not see the Indians during their first winter. What they did see were the shadows of the Indians. The first Indian to introduce himself was Samoset, a Monhegan from Maine, who came into the village on March 16, 1621. The following day, he returned with Tisquantum (Squanto), a Wampanoag who befriended and helped the English by showing them how to plant corn and to fish, and gather berries and nuts. within days, the Pilgrims signed a treaty of mutual protection with Ousamequin (Massasoit), the Pokanoket Wampanoag leader.

On that first Thanksgiving, Wampanoag and Pilgrims did not sit down for a big turkey dinner. It was not even an event that the Wampanoag knew about or were invited to in advance. In September/October 1621, the Pilgrims harvested their first crops, and they had a good yield. They “sent four men on fowling,” as Pilgrim Edward Winslow said about the day. This was one of only two historical sources of this famous harvest feast. Winslow also stated, “we exercised our arms.” “Most historians believe what happened was Massasoit got word that there was a tremendous amount of gunfire coming from the Pilgrim village, Massasoit brought his men, not for a feast, but because he thought that his Pilgrim allies were being attacked, and he was going to their aid.

When the Wampanoag arrived, the Pilgrims invited them to join their feast, but there was not enough food to feed the chief and his 90 warriors. According to William Bradford in his account of the feast said, “He [Massasoit] sends his men out, and they bring back five deer, which they present to the chief of the English town.

The harvest feast continued for three days. Was their turkey at that first Thanksgiving? Perhaps, perhaps it was not. There was venison provided by the Indians. The“Fowl” mentioned in Winslow’s account, which could have included turkey, was more likely waterfowl that they hunted. In addition to the meat, there was no doubt corn maize bread, pumpkin, and other squashes, but the meal bore very little resemblance to our modern Thanksgiving.

Making Thanksgiving A Legal Holiday

On September 28, 1789, before leaving office, Congress resolved that President Washington recommend a day of thanksgiving for the infant nation. He named Thursday, November 26, 1789, as a "Day of Publick Thanksgiving" - it would be the first Thanksgiving celebrated under the new Constitution. Subsequently, future presidents issued Thanksgiving Proclamations, but the dates and even months of the celebrations varied. President Abraham Lincoln in the year 1863 proclaimed that Thanksgiving would regularly be commemorated every year on the last Thursday of November.

In 1939, however, the final Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerned with a shortened Christmas shopping season interfering with the economic recovery, proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be moved to next to the last Thursday in November. Thirty-two states agreed, but sixteen states refused to change Thanksgiving to that date. In 1939 and 1940 different states celebrated Thanksgiving on two different dates. To end the division of when to celebrate Thanksgiving, Congress voted the holiday should fall on the fourth Thursday in November. the resolution was signed on December 26, 1941, establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. To this day, Thanksgiving continues to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Cygnet Brown


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