When most people think about the history of Thanksgiving, they think about the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, but the celebration goes back farther than that.
In 1541, Spanish conquistador and explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was in what is now called Palo Duro Canyon in West Texas. His band of Spaniards were meeting with the Teya Indians when the priest conducted a Thanksgiving Eucharist service and then the Spaniards and Indians joined together for a meal.
In 1621, the pilgrims who traveled to the New World on board the Mayflower, shared a feast with the local Indians at Plymouth and gave thanks for the bounty of safe travel to the New World. The history of that Thanksgiving meal are still debated and shrouded in myth, legend and fact.
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On December 12, 1621, Edward Wilson wrote a letter to a friend in England in which he penned:
“Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
1622, Wilson’s letter was published in England as part of a pamphlet commonly referred to as Mourt’s Relation. The account of the pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving was lost for years until it was re-discovered in 1820.
What exactly was served at the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving feast with the Indians is still a subject of debate. Most historians agree that venison (deer), fish, barley, and corn were served but whether or not there was any turkey served is not certain. Wilson’s letter stated they had killed many fowl, but what that fowl is subject to debate. It may well have included turkey or possibly swans and it may not. It’s also possible that due to their location that they may have also eaten seals and lobsters. However, William Bradford’s manuscript, Of Plymouth Plantation, published in 1856 after being lost for years did mention turkey as part of that first Pilgrim Thanksgiving feast:
“And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they took many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to yt proportion.”
On July 8, 1630, settlers at the Massachusetts Bay Colony held their first Thanksgiving Day. Many of them brought traditions from their native lands and together they had a day of prayer and giving thanks for the blessings that God had provided for them.
In October 1777, Continental forces had defeated British forces at the Battle of Saratoga. The Continental Congress issued a recommendation that the colonies observe a day of thanksgiving.
On November 30, 1777, Commander-in-Chief General George Washington issued a General Order which stated in part:
“Forasmuch as it is the indispensible duty of all men, to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligations to him for benefits received, and to implore such further blessings as they stand in need of; and it having pleased him in his abundant mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence, but also, to smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defence of our unalienable rights and liberties.”
“It is therefore recommended by Congress, that Thursday the 18th. day of December next be set apart for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise; that at one time, and with one voice, the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that, together with their sincere acknowledgements and offerings they may join the penitent confession of their sins; and supplications for such further blessings as they stand in need of. The Chaplains will properly notice this recommendation, that the day of thanksgiving may be duly observed in the army, agreeably to the intentions of Congress.”
On December, 18, 1777, Washington and the Continental Army were on their way to Valley Forge, but stopped in a cold winter field and held their Solemn Thanksgiving and Prayers.
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation declaring November 26 to be a day of prayer and thanksgiving for the victory over the British and the ratification of the US Constitution.
On November 26, 1789, as the nation held a national day of prayer and thanksgiving, Washington wrote in his diary:
“Being the day appointed for a thanksgiving I went to St. Pauls Chapel though it was most inclement and stormy–but few people at Church.”
After attending services at church, Washington went to the New York jail where he gave money, food and beer to those were in jail because they were debtors.
On April 13, 1815, President James Madison declared a national day of prayer and thanksgiving for the ending of the War of 1812 and signing of the Treaty of Ghent which took place on December 24, 1814.
On December 26, 1850, the Territory of Minnesota which then consisted of current day Minnesota and the Dakotas west to the Missouri River, celebrated a Thanksgiving Day. The proclamation for the holiday was issued by Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey:
“Young in years as a community, we have come into the wilderness, in the midst of savage men and uncultivated nature to found a new empire in aid of our pursuit of happiness, and to extend the area of enlightened republican Liberty . . . . Let us in the public temple of religion, by the fireside and family altar, on the prairie and in the forest, join in the expression of our gratitude, of our devotion to the God who brought our fathers safely through the perils of an early revolution, and who thus continues his favors to the remotest colonies of his sons.”
On November 28, 1861, Union and Confederate forces stopping fighting so they could celebrate a day of thanksgiving. Both sides had scored victories in battle and wanted to give thanks to God for those victories and pray for total victory over each other.
On September 28, 1863, Sarah Hale wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln asking him to declare a national Thanksgiving Day. Hale, the publisher of Lady’s Book magazine had been campaigning for a national Thanksgiving Day for nearly two decades. In her letter, Hale wrote:
“Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.”
“An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.”
On the day, October 3, 1863, President Lincoln took Hale’s letter to heart and acted quickly by proclaiming November 26, 1863 as a national holiday, Thanksgiving Day. His proclamation was part of a speech he commemorating the recent Union victory at Gettysburg.
The fourth Thursday of November remained the national celebration of Thanksgiving until 1939.
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November. His motive was to give shoppers an extra week to shop for Christmas. It was part of his recovery plan from the Great Depression.
In 1941, Congress insisted that Thanksgiving Day be returned to the fourth Thursday in November and Roosevelt gave in to the pressure and signed the bill into law. From that time until the present, Thanksgiving Day remains a national holiday, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.
Sources for the above includes: Thanksgiving History; Brief History of Thanksgiving; History of Thanksgiving; Lincoln Proclaims Official Thanksgiving Holiday; Thanksgiving Timeline, 1541-2001; Thanksgiving Timeline; History of Thanksgiving in Timeline and Fun Facts About Turkey Day