The Origins of Thanksgiving

President Truman with White Thanksgiving Turkey
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

In America today, Thanksgiving is generally seen as a time to get together with loved ones, eat a ridiculously large amount of food, watch some football, and of course give thanks for all the blessings in our lives. Many homes will be decorated with horns of plenty, dried corn, and other symbols of Thanksgiving. Schoolchildren across America will 'reenact' Thanksgiving by dressing as either pilgrims or Wampanoag Indians and sharing a meal of some sort. All of this is wonderful for helping create a sense of family, national identity, and remembering to say thanks at least once a year. However, as with many other holidays and events in American History, many of these commonly believed traditions about the origins and celebration of this holiday are based more on myth than fact.

Origins of Thanksgiving

The first interesting thing to point out is that the feast shared with the Wampanoag Indians and the first mention of Thanksgiving are really not the same event. During the first winter in 1621, 46 of the 102 pilgrims died. Thankfully, the following year resulted in a plentiful harvest. The pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast that would include 90 natives who helped the pilgrims survive during that first winter. One of the most celebrated of those natives was a Wampanoag who the settlers called Squanto. He taught the pilgrims where to fish and hunt and where to plant New World crops like corn and squash. He also helped negotiate a treaty between the pilgrims and chief Massasoit.

This first feast included many fowl, though it is not certain that it included turkey, along with venison, corn, and pumpkin. This was all prepared by the four women settlers and two teenage girls. This idea of holding a harvest feast was not something new for the pilgrims. Many cultures throughout history had held feasts and banquets honoring their individual deities or simply being thankful for the bounty. Many in England celebrated the British Harvest Home tradition.

The First Thanksgiving

The first actual mention of the word thanksgiving in early colonial history was not associated with the first feast described above. The first time this term was associated with a feast or celebration was in 1623. That year the pilgrims were living through a terrible drought that continued from May through July. The pilgrims decided to spend an entire day in July fasting and praying for rain. The next day, a light rain occurred. Further, additional settlers and supplies arrived from the Netherlands. At that point, Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving to offer prayers and thanks to God. However, this was by no means a yearly occurrence.

The next recorded day of Thanksgiving occurred in 1631 when a ship full of supplies that was feared to be lost at sea actually pulled into Boston Harbor. Governor Bradford again ordered a day of Thanksgiving and prayer.

The Pilgrims and Thanksgiving

While most Americans think of the Pilgrims as celebrating the first Thanksgiving in America, there are some claims that others in the New World should be recognized as first. For example, in Texas, there is a marker that says, "Feast of the First Thanksgiving–1541." Further, other states and territories had their own traditions about their first Thanksgiving. The truth is that many times when a group was delivered from drought or hardship, a day of prayer and thanksgiving might be proclaimed.

The Beginning of the Yearly Tradition

During the mid-1600s, Thanksgiving, as we know it today, began to take shape. In Connecticut valley towns, incomplete records show proclamations of Thanksgiving for September 18, 1639, as well as 1644, and after 1649. Instead of just celebrating special harvests or events, these were set aside as an annual holiday. One of the first recorded celebrations commemorating the 1621 feast in Plymouth Colony occurred in Connecticut in 1665.

Growing Thanksgiving Traditions

George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation by a President of the United States on November 26, 1789. Interestingly, some of the future presidents such as Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson would not agree to resolutions for a national day of Thanksgiving because they felt it was not within their constitutional power. Over these years, Thanksgiving was still being celebrated in many states, but often on different dates. Most states, however, celebrated it sometime in November.

The New Deal Thanksgiving

The confusion of the date for Thanksgiving continued through 1940 and 1941. Due to the confusion, Roosevelt announced that the traditional date of the last Thursday in November would return in 1942. However, many individuals wanted to ensure that the date would not be changed again. Therefore, a bill was introduced that Roosevelt signed into law on November 26, 1941, establishing the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. This has been followed by every state in the union since 1956.