Pilgrims and Indians
and the First Thanksgiving

The History of an American Holiday

Most of us remember learning about Thanksgiving in grade school: the Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together after a magnificient harvest to give thanks for their wonderful bounty. While it's true there were Indians and Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving - and even a turkey - things get a little more complicated after that. But we're not here to deliver a long discourse or provide a tittilating expose on the way things really happened back in 1621 when America wasn't even a colony. However, we have unearthed a few interesting anecdotes about the history of our national holiday that just might help fill in those long silences around the Thanksgiving dinner table. And if Uncle Ted keeps asking you embarassing questions about your personal life, if you read this article carefully, you can change the subject with a cheerful, "Did you know George Washington declared Thanksgiving to be a February holiday? What's up with that?"

And even if your own Thanksgiving holiday is peaceful and idyllic, you can read about a time when things weren't quite so easy. So unpack the canned pumpkin and cranberry sauce, and consider these facts:

Although there were other "thanksgivings" celebrated in North America by foreigners ( see alternative claims to the first Thanksgiving ) , the feast that took place in Plymouth in August of 1621 is the one our modern celebration is most closely aligned with. After arriving in Plymouth in 1620, the Pilgrims had endured hardships but had managed to survive, in a large part due to the help of Squanto, an Indian who taught the Pilgrims how to fish, grow corn, and farm the land. At the end of their first year, the Puritans held a "harvest feast" celebrating the fruits of their farming efforts. The feast honored Squanto and their friends, the Wampanoag Indians. The feast was followed by three days of "thanksgiving" celebrating their good fortune.

Although Indians and Pilgrims joined together for a meal of thanksgiving in 1621, the Indians didn't fare so well at other thanksgiving observances. In 1641, a raid against the members of the Pequot tribe in Connecticut was very successful, and the churches declared a day of "thanksgiving" to celebrate. During this feast, the decapitated heads of Natives were kicked through the streets of Manhatten. Many towns in New England held thanksgiving days to celebrate victories over the Natives.

The practice of celebrating a fall Thanksgiving was well established in New England by the middle of the 17th century, but the first National Thanksgiving wasn't proclaimed and signed by the President of the Continental Congress until November 1, 1777, by order of Congress. The proclamation designate the third Thursday of December for a solemn day of "thanksgiving and praise". In particular, they were celebrating the surrender of British Major Gen. John Burgoyne, who had surrendered at Saratoga on October 17, 1777.

George Washington declared Thursday, the 19th of February, a National Day of Thanksgiving. His proclamation stated that it is "our duty as a people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God, and to implore Him to continue is our duty as a people, with devout reverence and affectionate gratitude, to acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God..."

On October 3, 1863, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the U.S Congress established the first annual National Day of Thanksgiving "on the last Thursday of November, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

The images of pilgrims and Indians that define Thanksgiving for us today were not part of the national celebration until the 19th century. Before 1900, you didn't see picutres of Pilgrims sitting down to eat with Indians. There was so much violence out west that the idea of a harmonius celebration between the Indians and Pilgrims was too difficult for most people to imagine.

In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from tradition by declaring November 23, the next to the last Thursday that year, as Thanksgiving. All of Lincoln's successors had proclaimed Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November. But in 1939, the National Dry Goods Association had requested Roosevelt move Thanksgiving back one week to allow for a longer Christmas season. This caused considerable controversy, with 23 states celebrating Thanksgiving on the 23rd, and 23 states waiting until the 30th. This Thanksgiving was called "Franksgiving" by many who considered Roosevelt's proclamation an outrage. In 1941, Roosevelt announced that the extending of the Christmas season had caused no increase in retail sales, and on November 26, 1941, he signed a bill that established the fourth Thursday in November as the national Thanksgiving holiday, which it has been ever since.

Teachers in Focus - Documenting Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving in American History
Thanksgiving - Its True History
What is Thanksgiving?