The History of Thanksgiving

by Esther Pavao

Believe it or not, Thanksgiving is a relatively recent holiday. That's right, and the history of Thanksgiving hasn't always been about overeating, or eating at all, really.

English Reformation

Thanksgiving celebrations have been held for centuries. In England, thanksgiving days and festivals became especially popular during the time of the English Reformation. Puritans were pushing to replace traditional holidays with Days of Fasting for prayer following natural disasters, smallpox outbreaks, and the like or Days of Thanksgiving when there was a successful war or harvest. These evolved into an all-purpose "something good happened, let's have a day to be thankful to God for it."

However, the Puritans were deeply religious, so the idea that fasting in order to achieve redemption or forgiveness would have been the order of the day, not eating your face off.

The "First Thanksgiving"

Thanksgiving as we know it is traditionally (though not reliably) rooted in a well-known Plymouth harvest meal in the 1621. The Days of Thanksgiving and Fasting were still held; so in the summer heat, a day of fasting was held to pray for the end of a drought. Their prayers were answered and rain came. The Puritan settlers, following an unusually bountiful harvest, held a day of thanksgiving.

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe | Public domain image.

The Native Americans believed that the harvest was the generosity of the Creator as well, and were accustomed to holding their own days of prayer and thanksgiving.

"At the end of the [growing] season there is another meeting...This is the season when the corn is ready to store away and thanks must again be given for food. This ceremony is called...(gathering corn bread). Nearly every family prepares for this by baking a batch of old-fashioned corn bread. This is brought to the longhouse. A speaker is again appointed and addresses the people, congratulating them on the success of their crop or harvest. Thanks are also given to the Great Spirit that the people have been well supplied."[1]

The English settlers and the Native Americans held a three-day feast in celebration. Their meal wouldn't much resemble our own modern Thanksgiving festivities, but they played games, held contests, told stories, and sang songs. This appears to be the first recorded event that I can find in the history of thanksgiving marked with food in some way.

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling [bird hunting], 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."

~ Edward Winslow [2]

They also would likely have eaten cornbread, stuffing made with onions, herbs, and chestnuts, probably some fish or shellfish, and greens like collards and spinach.

These festivities were no doubt driven by the success of the difficult ocean crossing, but they didn't last. Not only did relations with the Native Americans sour, but the whole point, some felt, was to have a day of nothing to distract from praying and thanking God. The celebratory meal didn't reoccur in 1678, when it was requested that a day of prayers and fasting be held in New England. They wanted servants to have the day off so they could join in too.

These corporate fast days were regularly recommended as a way to refocus on God, humility, and penitence. For example, a day of fasting was held following the Salem Witch Trials. So it would be more accurate to say that the history of Thanksgiving is almost the complete opposite of what it is now. So when did it change? Honestly, we don't really know.

Revolutionary War

On April 15, 1775, (just before the battle of Lexington), Congress decreed that "THURSDAY the Eleventh Day of May next be set apart as a Day of Public Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer; that a total Abstinence from servile Labor and Recreation be observed..." in order to pray for the colonies and England to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

In 1779, Governor of Virginia Thomas Jefferson signed off on a public day of thanksgiving, but cautiously. Later, as President, he was hesitant to make the same call. He didn't feel the president had the authority to interfere with the private religious lives of the people.

In 1780, the War was well underway (nearly over, in fact—the Battle of Yorktown was the following year), and John Hancock declared that the colonies needed to beseech God for help with a day of prayer.

John Hancock's declaration of the need for public prayer.John Hancock's declaration of the need for public prayer.

When the Lust of Dominion or lawless Ambition excites arbitrary Power to invade the Rights, or endeavour to wrest from a People their sacred and invaluable Privileges, and compels them in Defence of the same to encounter all the Horrors and Calamities of a bloody and vindictive War; then is that People loudly called upon to fly unto that GOD for Protection who hears the Cries of the Distressed, and will not turn a deaf Ear to the Supplication of the Oppressed.

Thanksgiving on a National Scale

The very first nationally celebrated Thanksgiving was in 1789.

President George Washington proclaimed Thursday the 26th of November 1789 a day of "public thanksgiving and prayer" devoted to "the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be."

President Washington's announcement in the newspaper.President Washington's announcement in the newspaper.

Washington himself marked the day by attending services at St. Paul's Chapel in New York City and by donating beer and food to imprisoned debtors in the city. (Ah, there's the food we've been waiting for.)

The thanksgiving day eventually evolved until it included a family dinner. An American surgeon Dr. Cogswell of Connecticut, described a typical eighteenth century Thanksgiving meal in his journal:

On Thanksgiving day, [I] attended church in the morning, ate a dinner afterward consisting of turkey, pork, pumpkins, and apple pies... spent time with my father, then sang [songs] and ate apples and nuts in the kitchen with [my] stepsisters before going to bed." [3]

Determining a Date

That sounds a lot more like the history of the Thanksgiving we all know and love. But it still didn't have an official date until years later. It was mostly celebrated casually and individually by state or city anywhere from October to January.

Sarah Josepha HaleSarah Josepha Hale
Public domain image.

Author Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for nearly 40 years to have a national day of thanksgiving in remembrance of that first meal between the original settlers and the Native Americans, even designing an ideal menu for the holiday. She wrote 13 presidents and published multiple cookbooks. Her hard work paid off in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln finally declared that a National Day of Thanksgiving would be celebrated by all the states on the final Thursday of November. Lincoln was trying to create a feeling of national unity and celebration, not honor the history of Thanksgiving like Hale.

Interestingly, Hale also is responsible for establishing a monument to the soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Bunker Hill. She is, however, no relation to the famous Nathan Hale.

Jamestown Colony

Jamestown Colony

Roanoke Colony

Roanoke Colony


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