The History of Thanksgiving

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A group of pilgrims and native americans taking part in the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth
A painting of the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie Brownscombe in 1925. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every year in late November America gathers together and celebrates Thanksgiving. Family and friends share a meal while giving thanks – for the turkey, for good fortune, and often, for the United States of America. Children are told by their parents and grandparents the story and history of Thanksgiving: long ago, when the Pilgrims landed, they worked together with the Native American inhabitants of the continent to survive and eventually flourish. They cemented their friendship through a grand feast after a successful year’s harvest. As the years passed, the Pilgrims continued to prosper, and the Native American inhabitants slowly faded into the margins of history. But the original friendship between the two groups has lived on in the annual Thanksgiving holiday, a tradition that connects the Pilgrims to Americans today.

This story is, of course, almost a complete myth. The true history of thanksgiving is far more complex and brutal.

It is true that the Pilgrims and their Native Wampanoag allies participated in a large feast in the autumn of 1621. It is unlikely, however, that the Pilgrims viewed it as a “Thanksgiving,” as for the recently arrived Pilgrims, a “Thanksgiving” was a religious observance centered around fasting and prayer. Instead, the feast was more akin to a party, with games and food for all. The tradition of such celebrations at the end of harvest season is far older than the 17th century: the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Hebrews, and Chinese cultures of antiquity all possessed some fashion of celebration at the end of harvest season.

But the “Thanksgiving” of 1621 was not an ordinary feast. The Pilgrims did have something to celebrate: their very survival. Since they had landed a year earlier, half of their number had died to the harsh climate and starvation. They had not come prepared to survive. Because the latitude of their landing was similar to southern England and the Netherlands, they had expected the climate to be as forgiving. Instead, they suffered through a harsh New England winter and were not prepared for the spring that followed. It was only through the friendship of the nearby Wampanoag tribe that they were able to grow the food they needed. What the Pilgrims did not know was that their alliance with the Wampanoag was only because the local politics between the Native American tribes led the Wampanoag to ally with the English settlers.

The first thanksgiving 1621 showing pilgrims, native americans sharing food. The image is not accurate.
An 1899 painting of the First Thanksgiving in 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. This painting depicts many inaccuracies, not showing the real history of thanksgiving. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the years leading up to the landing of the Pilgrims, an epidemic had wiped out between seventy-five and ninety percent of the Wampanoag. This greatly weakened their position in the area, and with surrounding tribes threatening, they were forced to seek an alliance with the English. This could not have been easy: the Pilgrims had only survived the harsh winter of 1620-21 by looting the graves of buried Wampanoag, who were often buried with food in accordance with their customs. And because of the epidemic, these graves were plentiful. Some historians question whether the Pilgrims would have been able to establish their colony without the epidemic, as the land they arrived in was occupied by now deceased Wampanoag only a few years earlier.

 The Wampanoag, led by a man named Ousamequin, established a treaty with the Pilgrims that lasted for fifty years. It was Ousamequin, more commonly known by his title Massasoit, that was present at the first “Thanksgiving” of 1621, eating and drinking with the very same people who had defiled his people’s graves less than a year earlier. It could not have been easy, but the Wampanoag needed the English as allies, as they traded good steel tools in exchange for furs, which were so plentiful that the Wampanoag viewed them as almost useless

But as the years passed, tension grew, and the colonists continued to arrive and expand. The Wampanoag, and other nearby Native American tribes, were slowly pushed back, and things finally reached a boiling point when Ousamequin died. His son Metacom, called King Phillip by the English, led his people to resist the English, and open warfare broke out. King Phillip’s War, as it is now known, lasted from 1675-1676 and ended when Metacom was killed, dismembered, and his head planted on a spike by the colonists, who left it there for over a decade.

Pilgrims / colonists storming King Phillip's fort during the Great Swamp Fight of King Phillip's War. This war was a key part of the history of thanksgiving.
The storming and capturing of Metacomet’s Fort during the Great Swamp Fight in December 1675. King Phillip’s war is key in explaining the true history of Thanksgiving. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This is not the happy history of Thanksgiving most Americans were taught about. Additionally, it was not yet a regular holiday. There were no regular, yearly celebrations in late November commemorating the survival of the Pilgrims and their friendship with the local Native Americans. It was not until 1863, during the height of the Civil War, that Abraham Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a federal holiday, to be celebrated on the last Thursday of every November. Although decades earlier, George Washington had declared the last Thursday of November a day of national Thanksgiving, it was only for that year, and he was giving thanks for the constitution, not the landing of the Pilgrims.

Lincoln’s declaration was not a natural, organic remembrance of the early Pilgrims, but the result of a decades-long campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale. Sarah, an author and poet whose best-known work is “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” wrote editorials, letters, and articles for thirty-six years in her attempt to make Thanksgiving a national federal holiday. For her successful effort, she became known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”

A painting of Sarah Josepha Hale, a key person in Thanksgiving becoming an American holiday
Portrait painting of Sarah Josepha Hale, a key person in the campaign for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday in the USA, in circa 1831 by James Reid Lambdin. Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Thanksgiving has largely remained the same since the time of Lincoln. It was only in 1939 that Franklin Roosevelt attempted to change things by moving it a week earlier, from the fourth to the third Thursday of November. He was attempting to boost retail sales during the Great Depression, but his attempt was largely mocked, with people derisively referring to the new holiday date as “Franksgiving.” Many Americans refused to even acknowledge the change, and so two years later in 1941, Roosevelt reversed his decision and moved Thanksgiving back to the fourth Thursday of November. It has remained there ever since.

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