The History of Thanksgiving


artwork by Nicole Sagal

Gabby Ogier and Kiara Hills

Due to the usual craziness of life, the reason we celebrate Thanksgiving is often overlooked. In the eyes of most Americans this holiday is simply a time to pin hand turkeys on the wall, and fill the house with the smells of pumpkin pie. But, to the people of the first Thanksgiving, it was a symbol of the peace between them and the Wampanoag, a local native tribe. The first Thanksgiving was a three-day long event that took place in the Pilgrims’ village of Plymouth in the fall of 1621. Even though this history of Thanksgiving is widely known, there are also many details that are unknown to most.
In 1620, the Pilgrims left Plymouth, England on a 66-day voyage across the Atlantic to the New World on the Mayflower. It was a harsh and dangerous journey, yet many believed that they would find a sort of sanctuary in which they would not be persecuted for their religious beliefs. Others believed that they would find a new home that was rich with new opportunities. Because it was winter when they arrived in the New World, the majority of the Pilgrims were forced to remain aboard the Mayflower. Due to confined living quarters and harsh weather conditions, many fell ill, and only half of the original 102 Pilgrims survived to see spring. When the remaining Pilgrims disembarked, they were greeted by the Wampanoag. Squanto, one of the Wampanoag, already spoke English because he had been captured by English explorers. He would become a translator between the two peoples and help the Pilgrims learn to survive in their new home. Squanto also helped the two groups form an alliance which would last for fifty years. This alliance led to the first Thanksgiving, which occurred directly after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest.
Americans might be curious to know that there are only two surviving documents that describe what food was actually found on the first Thanksgiving table. They reveal that only only sure that three foods were guaranteed to have been served at the feast: corn, venison, and wildfowl. This is quite different from what is typically served on most Americans Thanksgiving tables. Although some of the foods that were present are not considered the traditional Thanksgiving foods of today, there are other clues that point toward there being some traditional foods, such as corn and turkey. While turkey may have been present, historians believe that it would not have been the centerpiece of the Pilgrims’ table. There is also a suspicion that the two groups may have eaten lobster, eels, and other seafood. Many of the crops that were found on the first Thanksgiving table were most likely from the Pilgrims’ gardens, which were filled with crops that the local Native Americans had taught them to grow. Despite the fact that most Americans believe that a Thanksgiving without pie is no Thanksgiving at all, in truth historians do not believe that there was pie on the first Thanksgiving. This was likely due to the dwindling supplies in the Plymouth Village.
Another often forgotten piece of the Thanksgiving story is it’s journey to becoming a national holiday in the U.S. In the years that followed that first celebration, the people of New England celebrated Thanksgiving on an annual or occasional basis. However, Thanksgiving would not be celebrated on a widespread basis until after the American Revolution, when the Continental Congress issued a “day for thanks.” During George Washington’s presidency, he called for the first national Thanksgiving in the hopes that the people of America would take a day to be thankful for the conclusion of the country’s war. John Adams and James Madison also continued the tradition during their presidencies. Even though many presidents had issued “days of thanks” in the past, before 1817 no states celebrated Thanksgiving as an official holiday. Led by New York, many states in the north adopted the holiday. But the South wouldn’t follow suit until president Abraham Lincoln designated Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863, due to Sarah Josepha Hale’s 36-year campaign to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday. At this time, the U.S was embroiled in the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln hoped a great number of Americans would use this day to think of those affected by the war. In 1941, President Theodore Roosevelt moved the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November, where it has been celebrated ever since.
Although many people celebrate Thanksgiving, few would know that there is also a contingency who are unsure whether the narrative usually taught in schools is accurate or incorrect. For example, there are historians who believe that there may have been other Thanksgivings that occurred before the one at Plymouth. For instance, there was a dinner that was held by Pedro Menéndez de Avilé, to which he invited members of the local Timucua tribe in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565, for the safe arrival of him and his crew. Another example is in 1619 when a group of British settlers held a similar “day of thanks.” This event occurred on the banks of the James River in Virginia. Also, some have a problem with the way that the Thanksgiving story is presented. They believe that the way most Americans think about the first Thanksgiving covers up the truth of the racist and brutal treatment of the Native Americans at the hands of the colonists. In 1970, groups of people began gathering in different places across the U.S. on Thanksgiving to hold a day of mourning for the Native lives that were lost in the colonial days.
Thanksgiving is a holiday with a very rich history, but its mysteries and controversies are overlooked by most Americans. Perhaps, this time of year, we should pause to consider the holiday, what it stands for, and why we celebrate it. That way, when you’re stuffing your face with your favorite holiday food, you can truly understand the meaning behind what you’re eating.