The First Thanksgiving
Many people trace Thanksgiving in the United States back to 1621, when the
Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn feast.
Actually, the feast was not a holiday, but one of a long tradition of feasts
by Native Americans celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for the bountiful
Members of the Pueblo, Cherokee, Creek and other tribes held harvest
festivals, ceremonial dances and other celebrations long before the pilgrims
landed on Plymouth Rock.
The first official Thanksgiving took place in 1863, when President
Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day, and it has been a yearly
tradition ever since.
The First Unofficial Thanksgiving
But what happened on the first, unofficial Thanksgiving in the 1600s?
Many of the pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower were members of the English
Separatist Church, who fled their homes in England and traveled to Holland to
escape religious persecution.
However, they considered the Dutch way of life ungodly, and negotiated with
a London stock company to finance a pilgrimage to America.
About one-third of the people who sailed were Separatists.
They landed at Plymouth Rock on Dec. 11, 1620.
After the first winter, 46 of the 102 who sailed on the Mayflower had
perished, but a bountiful harvest that fall saved them, and they celebrated
with a feast that included 91 Indians who had helped them survive.
The feast lasted for three days.
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It is not really known exactly what they ate at that first feast -- the only
items that we know were on the menu were wild fowl and venison.
Among the other items that could have been on the menu were:
- Fruit: Plums,
- Grain: Wheat Flour,
- Meat: Venison,
- Seafood: Cod, Eel,
- Seasonings: Olive Oil,
Liverwort, Leeks, Dried Currants, Parsnips
- Vegetables: Pumpkin,
Peas, Beans, Onions, Lettuce, Radishes, Carrots
- Wild Fowl: Turkey,
Goose, Duck, Crane, Swan, Partridge, Eagle
Many of what we consider staples of the Thanksgiving meal couldn't possibly
have appeared at the feasting table of the pilgrims and Native Americans.
Pigs and chickens were not native of the area. The pilgrims brought some
with them, but there is no evidence that the pigs were butchered to provide
ham, or that that hens were still laying eggs.
Potatoes and sweet potatoes were not common, as the potato was considered poisonous
at that time.
Corn had been dried by that time of year, but they did make a fried bread
from the corn crop.
Because the colonists did not have sugar at that time, it is unlikely they
had cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie, but they did have a recipe for stewed
When Did Thanksgiving Become Official?
The feast was not repeated until June 29, 1676, when a day of thanksgiving
In 1777, the 13 colonies joined together in a thanksgiving celebration to
commemorate a victory over the British at Saratoga.
In 1789, President George Washington tried to proclaim a national day of
Thanksgiving, but experienced a lot of opposition, including from Thomas
Many historians believe that a writing campaign by magazine editor Sarah
Josepha Hale over 40 years finally led to Lincoln setting the last Thursday in
November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
Congress finally sanctioned Thanksgiving as a legal holiday in 1941, set for
the fourth Thursday in November.
- Now that you've studied a little, try
our Thanksgiving quiz and test your knowledge!