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.
The remaining colonists decided to celebrate with
a feast -- inviting 91 Indians 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, but
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 were
no breads or pastries of any kind. However, they
did eat boiled pumpkin, and they produced a type
of fried bread from their corn crop. There were
also no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter.
There were 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, but in 1623, during a severe
drought, the pilgrims gathered in a prayer service,
praying for rain. When a long, steady rain followed
the very next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed
another day of Thanksgiving, again inviting their
It wasn't until June of 1676 that another Day
of Thanksgiving was proclaimed. On June
20, 1676, 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.
October of 1777 marked the first time that
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
George Washington proclaimed a National Day
of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed
to it. There was discord among the colonies, many
feeling that the hardships of a few Pilgrims did
not warrant a national holiday. Later, President
Thomas Jefferson scoffed at 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 sending 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.
In 1941, Thanksgiving was finally sanctioned by
Congress as a legal holiday,
as the fourth Thursday in November.