The Origins of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day

As early as kindergarten children are taught the story of the Pilgrims and Indians first Thanksgiving; however some origins of this holiday may surprise.

It is part of American history that the Pilgrims gave rise to the celebration that we have on the last Thursday of November. But the celebration of the holiday actually was due to the tireless efforts of the female editor of a very popular ladies magazine.

The Mayflower brought 102 Pilgrims to America as they sought refuge from religious oppression. After a four month journey they landed on Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. By the fall of the next year they had lost forty-six of their own members, mainly to scurvy and pneumonia. So the remaining Pilgrims had much to be thankful for. They had a new crop that was harvested and food was abundant, but above all of that, they were alive.

Squanto Helps the Pilgrims

The pilgrims felt they owed much of their survival to an Indian named Squanto. Squanto had been captured by explorers who were coming to America and sold into slavery in Spain. He escaped to England and spent several years working for a very wealthy merchant before retuning to his native Indian village just six months before the landing at Plymouth Rock. When the pilgrims landed, Squanto helped them build house and plant crops of corn and barley. To celebrate this bountiful year, William Bradford, the newly elected governor in 1621 proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in the small village.

Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford’s autobiography, stated the celebration lasted three days and consisted of, lobsters, clams, deer, bass, corn green vegetables, and dried fruits. The Pilgrims invited the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, Massosoit and ninety of the braves. The preparation of the meal which served ninety-one Indians and fifty-six settlers was done by only 4 Pilgrim women and two teenage girls. The six women who prepared the meal worked with limited resources but still managed to produce a varied menu. Current Thanksgiving meals contain many of the same menu choices. Despite myths that surround the holiday, two of the main staples, turkey and pumpkin pie, were most likely not served at that first Thanksgiving sit down. While wild turkeys were served they are not the same bird that we consume today. In the language of the seventeenth-century Pilgrim, “turkey” meant any guinea fowl, or any bird with a featherless head.

The First Thanksgiving’s Menu

There are recorded historical documents that venison was most likely the main meat at the meal. A pilgrim recorded that “Chief Massosoit sent braves into the woods and they killed five deer for the feast.” Watercress and leeks were on the table but there was no apple cider, milk, butter, or cheese since there had been no cows on the Mayflower.

It is also likely there was no bread. The flour that had been stored and brought over on the ship had long since been depleted and many years would pass before the grain harvest would be cultivated enough for bread or pie crust. There was however 15 boys at the celebration who harvested wild cranberries that the women boiled down and mashed into a sauce for the meal. The next year brought a poor harvest and more settlers to feed so there was no second Thanksgiving meal nor did they ever celebrate a Thanksgiving holiday. This is where the help of the editor came into play.

Sarah Josepha Hale

In October 1777 the thirteen colonies joined in a common celebration of thanksgiving and it is commemorated by the patriotic victory of the British at The Battle of Saratoga. But this was also a onetime deal. President George Washington issued a proclamation for Thanksgiving, in 1789, the year of his inauguration, but excessive discord among the colonies prevented it from being carried out. This discord so carried over from the Americans who dismiss the struggles of the first colonist that President Thomas Jefferson condemns recognition of Thanksgiving during his two terms.

The reason Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today is the result or the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale . In 1827, Ms Hale was the editor of the popular Boston Ladies ‘Magazine. She used the magazine editorial page as a platform to encourage the public to write their local politicians and demand a national holiday. When the magazine combined with the highly popular Godey’s Lady’s Book of Philadelphia the population the magazine reached was 150,000.

President Lincoln Passes a Thanksgiving Proclamation

In addition to the editorials, Ms Hale wrote hundreds of letter to governors, preachers, newspaper editors, and Presidents. This went on for almost 4 decades. She always made the same request that the last Thursday in November be set aside to “offer to God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year.” The last editorial which was highly emotional and patriotic came in 1863 just weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg in which hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives. This timely editorial prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue a proclamation on October 3, 1863, that the last Thursday in November would be Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving stay this way until 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt shifted Thanksgiving back one week, to the third Thursday, to allow store merchants to have more shopping days before Christmas. This action pleased the merchants but caused a firestorm throughout the country. Protest and letters bombarded the President who publicly announced he had made an error and returned the holiday to the last Thursday in November. The merchants decided to offer sales and bargains the day after Thanksgiving thus starting the sales that continue to this day.

Today Thanksgiving is a time of family and traditions. With turkey, pumpkin pie, and football, it is a holiday that is definitely American. While many of us do not remember the sacrifices made by our ancestors to get to this day, most Americans use the holiday as a time to express thanks for all the blessings that our life of freedom and plenty has bestowed upon us.