The first “Thanksgiving” in November 1621 at Plymouth probably did not include turkey, cornbread stuffing or pumpkin pie — cranberries maybe, since the fruit was used in cooking and for medicinal purposes. And the three-day celebration wasn’t called “Thanksgiving.”
We don’t know really what the menu was after that fall corn harvest, but we do know Chief Massasoit and the Wampanoag tribe were invited to the feast. According to one reference source, lobster, seal and swans were on the table. Governor Bradford sent four men out to get meat for the event, however, the Indian guests brought five deer, which were likely prepared using the traditional Native American spices and methods of cooking. Since there was no oven and sugar was in short supply, pies, cakes and so forth obviously didn’t make the menu.
The Plymouth colony, now known as pilgrims, started for the New World on a small ship called the Mayflower in September 1620, enticed by dreams of prosperity, land ownership and religious freedom. The crossing took 66 days and the ship anchored near the tip of Cape Cod, where the passengers stayed for a month before crossing Massachusetts Bay.
That first winter in the New World, most of the 102 travelers stayed aboard the ship, but by spring, only about half of the people were still alive. The remaining settlers — weak from malnutrition and illness — went ashore, where they began the village at Plymouth, (named for their hometown in England).
They were met by an Abenaki Indian who, surprisingly, spoke English. Later, he introduced Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. Squanto had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery. He escaped to London, then returned to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, extract sap from maple trees, fish, hunt and how to recognize poisonous plants. And it was through Squanto that the settlers were able to connect with the Wampanoag tribe. That alliance endured for more than 50 years — unfortunately, the only example of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.
The Pilgrims held another Thanksgiving celebration on July 30, 1623. This 1623 thanksgiving was significant because the order to recognize the event was from civil authority and not from the church, making it likely the first civil recognition of Thanksgiving in New England.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony, which consisted mainly of Puritan Christians, celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time in 1630 — then becoming an annual festival in 1680. Thanksgiving in Connecticut was celebrated as early as 1639 and annually after 1647, except in 1675. The Dutch in New Netherland appointed “giving thanks” day in 1644.
Charlestown, Mass., held the first recorded Thanksgiving observance on June 29, 1671, with proclamation of the town’s governing council. Later in the 1700s, individual colonies would periodically designate a day of thanksgiving in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution or a bountiful crop. Such a Thanksgiving Day celebration was held in December 1777 by the colonies nationwide, which commemorated the surrender of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga. Some Thanksgivings were days set aside for prayer and fasting, rather than with plenty of food as is the custom today.
During the American Revolutionary War a thanksgiving day was set each year by the Continental Congress and the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving was given by the Continental Congress in 1777 from York, Pa., since the British held the national capital at Philadelphia. George Washington proclaimed that Thanksgiving in December 1777 as a victory celebration.
On Sept. 24, 1789, the first House of Representatives voted to recommend the First Amendment of the newly drafted Constitution to the states for ratification and the next day, it was proposed that the House and Senate jointly request President Washington to proclaim a day of thanksgiving for “the many signal favors of Almighty God.” Senator Boudinot said that he “could not think of letting the session pass over without offering an opportunity to all the citizens of the United States of joining, with one voice, in returning to Almighty God their sincere thanks for the many blessings he had poured down upon them.”
George Washington again proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1795 and President John Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1798 and 1799. No Thanksgiving proclamations were issued by Thomas Jefferson, but James Madison, in response to resolutions of Congress, renewed the tradition in 1814. Madison also declared the holiday twice in 1815, but none of these was in the fall. In 1816, Governor Plumer of New Hampshire appointed Thursday, Nov. 14, to be observed as a day of Public Thanksgiving and Governor Brooks of Massachusetts appointed Thursday, Nov. 28, to be “observed throughout that state as a day of Thanksgiving.”
A thanksgiving day was annually appointed by the governor of New York from 1817, and by 1858, proclamations appointing a day of thanksgiving were issued by the governors of 25 states and two territories.
President Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War (prompted by an editorial) proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day in 1863, to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.
During the second half of the 19th century, Thanksgiving traditions in America varied from region to region. The earliest high school football rivalries took root in the late 19th century in Massachusetts, stemming from games played on Thanksgiving. Professional football took root as a Thanksgiving staple during the 1890s — a tradition which continues today.
Lincoln’s successors continued the tradition of annually declaring the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving. But in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke with this tradition since November had five Thursdays that year, so he declared the fourth Thursday as the holiday. Since the holiday had come to mean the opening of Christmas sales and with the country still in the midst of The Great Depression, Roosevelt thought the earlier Thanksgiving would give merchants more time to sell goods before Christmas, increasing profits and spending and helping bring the country out of the Depression. The practice has continued through the years and the holiday is followed with “Black Friday,” a day dedicated to shoppers.
Twenty-three states went along with Roosevelt’s recommendation; 22 did not, and some could not decide and took both days as government holidays. On Dec. 26, 1941, President Roosevelt signed a bill, for the first time making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law and fixing the day as the fourth Thursday of November.
Since 1947, the National Turkey Federation has presented the president of the United States with one live turkey and two dressed turkeys, in a ceremony known as the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. The “pardoning” of the (live) turkey began as a joke by Ronald Reagan in 1987, but was made permanent by George H.W. Bush in 1989. In 2009, President Obama pardoned a turkey named “Courage.”
Thanksgiving was founded as a religious observance for members of the community to give thanks to God for a common purpose. The tradition of giving thanks to God continues today in various forms as various religious organizations offer worship services and events on Thanksgiving themes to be celebrated before, on or after Thanksgiving.