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America's Unique History: The First Thanksgiving

Each Thanksgiving, families gather around the table to share a holiday meal and be thankful for all of the good things they have, but there is more to Thanksgiving than cranberry sauce and turkey. Thanksgiving has a very unique history behind it and to be truly thankful for what we have, we should take the time to understand why we celebrate this food-focused holiday every November.

The first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 by the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims were a group of people, including members of a small religious group from England, called the Puritans, who had come to America on a ship called the Mayflower in search of religious freedom. The Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts on December 11, 1620. Arriving in the dead of winter was very difficult, they had a very hard time and many lives were lost as they faced cold winters, a dwindling food supply, and sickness.

The first Thanksgiving was not an official holiday at first; it started as a gathering of families, friends, and the community to celebrate a good harvest and was celebrated over a three-day feast. Guests at the first Thanksgiving included 91 Native Americans who had helped teach the Pilgrims how to survive during their first cold, hard winter.

The staples of the modern Thanksgiving include turkey, potatoes, squash, and a variety of other items, including pumpkin. These foods are thought to be very different from the food at the first Thanksgiving. Instead of eating turkey at their Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims may have eaten wild duck or goose. To the Pilgrims, a “turkey” meant any wild fowl, not just the turkey that we eat today. However, historians do know that the Pilgrims ate deer meat, called venison, at their feast. The Pilgrims also enjoyed boiled pumpkin, a fried bread made from corn, fish, watercress, dried fruit, plums, berries, and lobster.

Unlike the Traditional Thanksgiving American’s celebrate, the Pilgrims did not make their feast an annual event. The next Thanksgiving was not held until 1676 when the state of Massachusetts wanted to plan a day of thanksgiving to celebrate their good fortune. As a result, June 29, 1676 was declared an official day of thanksgiving; this time, however, it is unlikely that the celebration included the Native Americans. The third thanksgiving was celebrated by all thirteen colonies in 1777 to recognize the colonies’ victory over the British at the Battle of Saratoga. Later, in 1789, George Washington declared a National Day of Thanksgiving, despite strong opposition by some colonists, including Thomas Jefferson.

It was President Abraham Lincoln who decided that the last Thursday of November should be Thanksgiving. Lincoln was inspired and won over by Sarah Hale, a women’s magazine editor who supported the idea of a National Day of Thanksgiving. Hale spent forty years fighting for her cause. She campaigned and wrote letters to government officials, presidents, and governors seeking support. After Lincoln declared Thanksgiving, every president after did as well. After a number of changes to the date, the United States Congress sanctioned the fourth Thursday in November a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1941.