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History of the US Thanksgiving
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Sharon Lathan
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February 2, 2014 - 12:22 PM
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The First Thanksgiving~~

 

In September 1620, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers. They were comprised of religious separatists seeking a new home to freely practice their faith, and individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land in the New World. The ocean crossing lasted sixty-six days and was fraught with hazards. They made land near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. After resting for a month, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, and it was there the Pilgrims established the village at Plymouth.

Many colonists stayed on the ship that first brutal winter. All of them suffered from exposure, scurvy, and outbreaks of contagious disease. Half of the Mayflower’s original passengers did not live to see their first New England spring.

The remaining settlers moved ashore in March of 1621, and very soon after welcomed an Abenaki Indian named Samoset, who greeted them in English! He returned, along with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe.

 

Who was Squanto?

Tisquantum, his Patuxet name, was born sometime in the late 1580s. There is some speculation that he was abducted in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth, taken to England, and taught English to be a guide. He then returned to New England, in 1614, with Captain John Smith. This part, however, is vague and refuted by many. What is known for sure is that Squanto, as he was named by the English, was kidnapped (again?) in 1614 by Englishman Thomas Hunt, a lieutenant under Captain John Smith. Hunt traveled to Spain and attempted to sell his native prisoners into slavery, but several local friars saved the men. Squanto convinced the friars to release him so he could find his way home. First he sailed to England, taking a position as a shipbuilder under John Slany, who in 1618 brought Squanto with him to Newfoundland. Unable to obtain further passage to America, Squanto returned to England. Finally, in 1619, Squanto joined an exploratory expedition and made his way back to America. Tragically, Squanto found that his tribe, and many other Native Americans, had been decimated by European diseases a year earlier. He was taken in by the Abenaki, fortunately for the Pilgrims.

Thanksgiving_SquantoWeakened by malnutrition and illness, the Pilgrims may not have survived is not for the assistance of Squanto and the Wampanoag and Abenaki tribes. The natives taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, which plants to avoid, and so on. The alliance forged between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag would endure for more than fifty years.

By November the Pilgrims were thriving, and the first corn harvest proved successful. Plymouth Governor William Bradford initiated a celebratory feast, invited their Native American friends, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The feast to give thanks to God for their survival and bounteous harvest lasted for three-days.

No record remains of the exact foods served on the menu. Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians suggest many of the dishes used traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. It is known that the Pilgrims did not have an oven, and the sugar supply had dwindled, so pies and cakes probably weren’t enjoyed. There are references to fish of various types, including shellfish, and lots of vegetables and grains. Did they eat a turkey or two? We do not know. It is possible a turkey was one of the fowls hunted down, but if they did serve turkey, it was not as the centerpiece to the meal.

 

What happened to Squanto?

Squanto bust
Bust of Squanto

Squanto served as guide and translator between the English and Native tribes. His fluency in English and familiarity with their culture made him invaluable, a fact he eventually exploited, so the history goes. One theory is that he abused his power, playing both sides against each other for personal gain. At one point he was imprisoned and faced execution, saved when a new ship arrived and once again his services were required. Whether his deceptions were true or based on fear and poor relations between the various groups is unclear. Whatever the case, Squanto’s dealings with the two groups of people eventually led him to be distrusted by both parties. In 1622, while on his way back from a meeting with the Wampanoag, he fell ill with fever. Historians speculate the distrustful tribe may have poisoned him, but this will never be known. Squanto died a few days later. His passing was a tremendous loss for the Pilgrims.

 

 

Thanksgiving Goes National~~

 

There is very little serious dispute that the first Thanksgiving feast in America, the one all the others are linked to, was with the Pilgrims and Native tribes in the fall of 1621. I say “little dispute” because there are always some who want to mess with historical fact!

Harvest feasts for thanks or celebration were not an unusual happening, the tradition dating back centuries in just about every culture. It is known that even as early as the mid-1500s, on what is now American soil, there were thanksgiving-type feasts by other explorers and colonists. No one argues this, yet none of these observances were carried on past a one-time event. None of them were notable or in any way influenced the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving, or led to the holiday we now observe.

The Puritans, who accounted for a majority of the Mayflower Pilgrims, had since the early 1500s held specific holidays called Days of Thanksgiving to honor various events, including harvests. All of these held religious significance, the Puritans thanking God for His blessings and bounty. Therefore, that 1621 Thanksgiving was not a unique idea, it was merely the first to be noted, and then carried on. The Pilgrims sporadically celebrated feasts of thanks in the years after 1621, although it is not known precisely how often. Most historians believe it was not until the late 1660s that annual harvest feasts became the norm.

WashingtonThanksgiving
click image to view larger

Thanksgiving proclamations were made by church and state leaders throughout New England, each one held locally and at varied dates. Reasons were usually for a good harvest, but also for religious observances and special blessings through times of trial. Political victories became a popular excuse when the Revolution hit the Colonies. In October of 1777 all thirteen colonies celebrated a day of Thanksgiving for the first time, and the inaugural National Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington in 1789.

Washington declared Thursday, November 26, 1789, “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”

Yet even after President Washington’s national celebration, Thanksgiving did not immediately become an annual happening on the national level. Local communities continued to hold feast days, as before, but not until another great president and great war did the tradition draw national attention.

 

Enter Sarah Josepha Hale 

Born in the early 1800s, Hale was the matriarch of a large family, and every November gathered them together for a feast of thanksgiving. For forty years Hale advocated for a national, annual Thanksgiving holiday. She used her talent as a novelist – her first book, Northwood, published in 1827, included a whole chapter devoted to Thanksgiving traditions – and as a writer of children’s verses – she authored “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – and her position as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book – a popular magazine for home and family – to spread her cause.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, she saw the holiday as a way to infuse hope and belief in the nation and the constitution. More and more State leaders were reading her endless letters and written articles, and establishing State decreed Thanksgiving holidays. When the United States was torn in half by the Civil War, Hale appealed directly to President Lincoln. Unlike the previous six presidents Hale had written to, Lincoln listened, and agreed.

On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November (based on Washington’s date) to be a day of “thanksgiving and praise.”

lincoln-and-sarah-josepha-hale
Abraham Lincoln and Sarah Hale
hale_letter_001
Hale’s letter to President Lincoln. Click image to view larger.

 

 

 

The Final Establishment of Thanksgiving~~

 

 

For seventy-five years after President Lincoln issued his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation for the “last Thursday in November,” all but two succeeding presidents honored the tradition established by President Washington. In 1865 and 1869, Presidents Johnson and Grant, respectively, chose a different Thursday. After that, every other president annually issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation, keeping with the last Thursday in November as the date. Keep in mind that the dating was a tradition, as was the Thanksgiving proclamation itself, in fact, and not a legal obligation by the president. Still, for a very long time the last Thursday had been proclaimed, and over time it became an accepted fact to most.

FDR 1939 proclamation FDR’s 1939 Thanksgiving Proclamation. Click image for larger view.

 

That changed in 1939 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That year the last Thursday of November happened to be the 30th, and retailers (who were still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression) complained to FDR that with only twenty-four shopping days until Christmas, people would be rushed. The argument was to push Thanksgiving back one week, retailers hoping the extra week of shopping would translate to better sales.

Roosevelt agreed, and with his Thanksgiving Proclamation declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23. Needless to say, this new date after seventy-five year lead to massive confusion and controversy. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools had to rearrange vacations and tests. Football games were already an integral part of Thanksgiving, so the game schedule had to be examined. And on and on….

Political opponents and many others questioned the right of the president to change the holiday. They stressed the breaking of precedent and flippant disregard for tradition, feeling, especially, that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason.

Governors, who had traditionally followed the president in officially proclaiming the same day as Thanksgiving for their state, decided not to change the date. The country became split on which Thanksgiving date to observe. Twenty-three states followed the president, and twenty-three other states kept the traditional date of November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, decided to honor both dates!

Aside from the turmoil and frustration felt across the country, the extended holiday shopping season did not cause people to spend more. Businesses from all states reported that the spending was approximately the same.

Roosevelt did not budge in 1940. Again he announced Thanksgiving to be the second-to-last Thursday of the month, and the confusion continued. Thirty-one states followed him with the earlier date and seventeen kept the traditional date.

In a bizarre twist of irony, the holiday established by Lincoln to bring the country together was now tearing it apart. By 1941 Congress stepped in, deciding to fix a date for Thanksgiving. In a compromise, the date was amended to the “fourth Thursday in November” rather than the traditional “last Thursday” to take into account those years when November would have five Thursdays. The resolution was passed on December 26, 1941, establishing once and hopefully forever the date of Thanksgiving as a Federal Holiday in the United States of America.

1941 Thanksgiving proclamation

Senate Thanksgiving Proclamation, 1941. Click image for bigger view.

 

These are the words spoken and written by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his 1941 Thanksgiving Proclamation—

“It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord. Across the uncertain ways of space and time our hearts echo those words, for the days are with us again when, at the gathering of the harvest, we solemnly express our dependence upon Almighty God.

The final months of this year, now almost spent, find our Republic and the nations joined with it waging a battle on many fronts for the preservation of liberty. In giving thanks for the greatest harvest in the history of our nation, we who plant and reap can well resolve that in the year to come we will do all in our power to pass that milestone; for by our labors in the fields we can share some part of the sacrifice with our brothers and sons who wear the uniform of the United States.

It is fitting that we recall now the reverent words of George Washington, “Almighty God, we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy protection,” and that every American in his own way lift his voice to Heaven. Inspired with faith and courage by these words, let us turn again to the work that confronts us in this time of national emergency…

Now therefore, I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby invite the attention of the people to the joint resolution of Congress approved December 26, 1941, which designates the fourth Thursday in November of each year as Thanksgiving Day and I request that both Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1942, and New Year’s Day, January 1, 1943, be observed in prayer, publicly and privately.”

Thanksgiving

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History of the US Thanksgiving | Holiday Articles | The Library at Pemberley