The History of Thanksgiving

Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash

Turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, feasts, and family - what’s not to love! But have you ever taken the time to understand the history of Thanksgiving? Although, you might think you already know the whole truth behind this holiday: the pilgrims and the Native Americans sat down for a meal, peace at last, creating Thanksgiving.

But that couldn’t be more wrong. To point out just one of the many things that were misunderstood, the English settlers referred to themselves as the “Separatists,” not the pilgrims, as we call them - but this is only one thing.

While it’s true that the “pilgrims" and their feast have been the basis for this holiday, much of what we know is influenced by art, stories, and myths that were created years later. So, it’s time to bring light to the real story of how Thanksgiving came to be.

What happened in 1620-1621, when the "pilgrims" arrived at Plymouth, has been pieced together by historians. And they have learned that for some time European ships had been landing along North America’s East Coast. Many of these ships had slave traders on board, these "pilgrims" were the ones who captured Native Americans and sold them as enslaved people. They were also the ones who brought foreign diseases to the Native Americans - sparking an epidemic that unfortunately killed many people.

It is important to understand what actually occurred to make Thanksgiving how it is known today, as it is necessary to be educated about the real story - a history that most people are not aware of.


When the English Separatists arrived in November of 1620, the Wampanoag, one of the original tribes of Native Americans, were hesitant to form relationships - and this was only natural. However, the two groups did eventually grow into an alliance, which promoted trade while excluding from the French, as well as other Native American Nations.


After a challenging first winter passed, the Separatists learned to farm effectively in North America by the methods of the Wampanoag. This led to an abundant harvest in the fall of 1621, causing the settlers to hold a feast as a celebration of their bountiful crops.

According to political leader Edward Winslow, who was one of the several senior leaders aboard the Mayflower - on that day, a group of men hunted fowl, or birds, as instructed by Governor William Bradford. A group of Wampanoag presented five deers to the meal, led by Chief Massasoit. It is believed by historians that over 100 people attended this celebration, which lasted for at least three days. In addition to main course of deer or fowl, as the feasts were not exclusive to turkeys, the feast was most likely made up of regional fruits and vegetables. These vegatations included plums, grapes, onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, and a variety of berries. Cranberries were also on this list, though they weren’t made into sauce, but instead eaten whole - sugar was very scarce back then. Fifty years later, people would begin making what was similar to our modern cranberry sauce. Since the banquet took place near the ocean, fish and shellfish were likely included in the three-day feast as well.


In 1636, a conflict known as the Pequot War took place. It was a war that revolved around land ownership. This was the beginning of a conflict that would last decades. And during those decades, countless would be killed.


In 1675, conflict arose again, and soon war sparked between the English and Native Americans. This war was led by the second son of Massasoit, Metacom - commonly known to the English as King Philip. What was then known as King Philip’s War is now considered to be the bloodiest war in United States history. Thousands of Native Americans met horrid fates - they were killed, wounded, captured, and/or sold. Entire tribes were demolished, and their villages were destroyed. Hundreds of colonists were also killed, and many of their settlements were lost as well. Because of this, Thanksgiving is not perceived to be a joyful time at all, some even consider it a day to mourn to those who lost their lives during this war.

But that was all just the beginning of Thanksgiving. It still wasn’t an actual holiday back then - so how did it come to be?


During the Revolutionary War, following a major victory over the British - the Battle of Saratoga. And as a result of that victory, the national day of Thanksgiving took place on Dec. 18, 1777. This day of gratitude was called by George Washington later in 1789 for two reasons: to commemorate the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution. Nearly every president from Washington to Lincoln called for a day of gratitude, but Thanksgiving still wasn’t a national holiday.


Soon the 1840s arrived, and a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale entered the picture. Hale was well-educated and at a young age had both been married and widowed - but she later went on to become the editor of Godoy’s Lady’s Book. Additionally, she was one of the most influential voices of the 19th century and advocated for the abolition of slavery, women’s education, and the preservation of historical sites.

In the year 1846, she and others were growing concerned about the flow of Catholic immigrants who were impacting the national culture. Hale felt that the nation needed to remember its Puritan roots. And so, she began to encourage the nation’s leaders to make a day dedicated to gratitude, a national holiday. She published editorials; she wrote letters; she did everything she could but was ignored by lawmakers. But luck would change during the Civil War, when Lincoln was president. Hale decided to write to him about this, and while she was, the country had been completely torn apart and divided by the Civil War. Lincoln was desperately searching for some way he could unify the nation, and after reading the letter Hale had sent to him, Lincoln knew that what she was proposing was the answer.


Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November would be designated as a day of gratitude: Thanksgiving, officially a national holiday on October 3, 1863. Years later, Congress amended the fourth of November to be Thanksgiving, since November had five Thursdays - this decision was a precaution to avoid confusion. And so Thanksgiving had finally become, Thanksgiving!