The First Thanksgiving

Quick!  When was the First Thanksgiving?  Pilgrims and Indians, right?

Not so fast there.  Turns out you might be wrong.

Let me back up a second.  Thanksgiving, for those who aren’t American (or Canadian) is a National Holiday in the U.S. celebrated this week.  Tomorrow, in fact.  And all across this nation school children have been dressing up as Pilgrims and Native Americans to celebrate the first Thanksgiving.  But are they wrong?  Well….

In 1621 the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts did indeed celebrate a feast to which local Native American tribesman were invited.  But they didn’t view it specifically as a “Thanksgiving” feast.   It was a celebration of a successful harvest, helped in part by their Wampanoag and Massasoit neighbors.  This feast was repeated in 1623.  Similar feasts began to be held by the other settlers in New England, by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, for example, and in 1639 in Connecticut.  By the middle of that century annual harvest feasts were being held across the new colonies.  But they had closer ties to the old harvest holidays of the Medieval world like the ones I talked about on Monday.

So partial points for guessing Pilgrims and Indians.

So then the first Thanksgiving feast was declared by George Washington at the birth of our nation, right?

Sort of.

In 1777, after the super important victory by the Colonists-soon-to-be-Americans at the battle of Saratoga, George Washington and the Continental Congress declared a nation-wide feast of Thanksgiving.  It was celebrated in December, and it was probably a rockin’ good celebration too since victory meant that all the stress and trauma of the last several years was going to be worth it.  As president George Washington declared another national day of Thanksgiving to be held November 26, 1789.  This was the first national Thanksgiving Day declared in the United States of America.  Washington declared another national day of Thanksgiving in 1795, and John Adams made his own declarations in 1798 and 1799.  Several more declarations of special days of Thanksgiving were made in the early 1800s, though not necessarily in the Autumn, and various states began celebrating annually at this time.

So if you guessed that it was George Washington who declared the first Thanksgiving you also get partial points.

But when did Thanksgiving become Thanksgiving?  And how?

Yes folks, it’s true.  A woman is responsible for Thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale was a writer and editor who was born in New Hampshire but lived some of her life in Boston and eventually lived and died in Philadelphia.  You know her work even if you’ve never heard her name.   Yes, Sarah Josepha Hale penned a certain little poem that begins “Mary had a little lamb…”.  Sarah firmly believed that a permanent nation-wide day of Thanksgiving was necessary.  By the time of the Civil War Thanksgiving was mostly just celebrated in New England.  It was almost unheard of in the South.  Sarah wrote to each of the presidents of the United States starting in 1846 urging them to declare a permanent national holiday.  She wrote editorials about it for years.

Finally, in 1863, her pleas were answered.  In the midst of a Civil War that was tearing this land apart, President Abraham Lincoln heard her call for a national day of Thanksgiving and answered it.  So the last Thursday of 1863 became the first Thanksgiving Day from which we can now mark continuous annual observance of the holiday.

So if you said that Abraham Lincoln declared the first Thanksgiving Day in 1863 you also get partial marks.

As you might have figured out, the final Thursday of November is not necessarily Thanksgiving Day as it stands right now.  That was changed in the middle of another war, World War Two.  From 1939 to 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn’t make up his mind which Thursday he wanted Thanksgiving to fall on.  Well, not exactly true.  He wanted it to be on the third Thursday.  But by 1942 Congress decided, and passed a law to the effect, that Thanksgiving would be on the fourth Thursday of November.

Another fun Thanksgiving fact that I found….

In 1947 the National Turkey Federation (which I could have sworn was another name for Congress, ha ha) began its annual tradition of presenting the president with a live turkey (and two dressed ones).  Today a tradition has developed where the President pardons the live turkey so that it can go live out its life in peace and happiness on a lovely farm somewhere.  For bragging rights and a virtual high five, which president started the tradition of the Presidential Turkey Pardon?

5 thoughts on “The First Thanksgiving

  1. Enjoyed reading the post! Although JFK made a generous remark about the turkey he received, saying, “Let’s just keep him,” it was George H.W. Bush who first officially pardoned the turkey.

    • You are correct there! Although I also read that Truman saved a turkey at one point too, but it wasn’t official. =D Hope you had a fantastic Thanksgiving with lots of unpardoned turkey!

  2. Nice dig at congress, I cackled!

    The final question, for me, would have been a guess. And reading Book’s response, my guess would have been wrong.

    From what I know of JFK it sounded like something he’d do for a lark.

    Thanks for all the history. I knew about the harvest festivals (partly why I sometimes wish people a happy harvest day instead of thanksgiving 😛 )

    This was another part in my horribly inept history books growing up that was glossed over. Over in Illinois’ public school system we were taught that the pilgrims landed, were starving and the local Native Americans invited them as guests to their feasts.

    I never really bothered to dig up the truth beyond the bad blood there. I’m happy to report that my son’s public school system is doing a much better job though. He beat you to teaching me about Sarah Hale 😀

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