Thanksgiving is a popular North American holiday that is central to the origin story of the United States. It is traditionally said to have begun with the Plymouth Thanksgiving in 1621, but other Thanksgiving celebrations may have taken place earlier.
Often depicted as a celebratory feast between neighbouring colonists and indigenous groups, these early Thanksgivings can also be viewed as rare moments of peace in a frequently violent and hostile relationship.
Here are 10 facts about the origins of Thanksgiving.
1. The first Thanksgiving is popularly thought to have been in 1621
The popular Thanksgiving tradition situates the first Thanksgiving celebration in North America in the year 1621. Having sailed from England the previous year, the 53 surviving colonists of the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts are credited with sharing a meal with their neighbours, 90 members of the Wampanoag.
2. Although a day of Thanksgiving was celebrated two years earlier
An earlier Thanksgiving celebration took place in Virginia in 1619. It was organised by English settlers who had arrived at Berkeley Hundred on board the ship Margaret, which had sailed from Bristol, England, under Captain John Woodcliffe.
3. The first Thanksgiving in North America may have been older still
Meanwhile, arguments have been made to assert the primacy of Martin Frobisher’s 1578 voyage in search of the Northwest Passage on the timeline of North American Thanksgiving celebrations.
Historian Michael Gannon, on the other hand, proposes that the first celebration of the kind happened in Florida, on 8 September 1565, when Spaniards shared a communal meal with Indigenous people local to the area.
4. Thanksgiving in Plymouth may not have been so cordial
Colonists and Wampanoag are often regarded as cementing their fruitful relationship with a celebratory feast at the 1621 Thanksgiving, but tensions between them may have been much frostier. Earlier Europeans behaved “more like raiders than traders”, says historian David Silverman, and this informed how Wampanoag chief Ousamequin dealt with the Pilgrims.
The parties were split by profound cultural differences, particularly in how the Wampanoag’s communal sense of property over the land they conceded contrasted with the colonists’ traditions of exclusive possession. The colonists had already established themselves in an abandoned village called Patuxet, where most inhabitants had died from a European-originating pandemic between 1616 and 1619.
5. The Wampanoag had sought allies
Yet the Wampanoag had an interest in cooperating with the Pilgrims leading up to Thanksgiving in 1621. The region in which the Plymouth colonists settled was the territory of the Wampanoag.
According to Silverman, author of This Land is Their Land, Ousamequin valued the goods that the Europeans brought, but more importantly the potential alliance they might offer in confronting traditional enemies such as the Narragansetts to the west. Consequently, in 1921, Ousamequin had helped the Pilgrims prevail from starvation.
6. American Thanksgiving stemmed from English harvest traditions
Thanksgiving in North America is rooted in traditions that date to the English Reformation. Days of Thanksgiving had become more popular following the reign of Henry VIII, in reaction to the large number of existing Catholic religious holidays. However national days of prayer for special occasions had been ordered in England as early as 1009.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Thanksgiving days were called following significant events such as drought and floods, as well as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
7. Turkey at Thanksgiving came much later
Though Thanksgiving is commonly associated with eating turkey, no turkey was eaten at the first Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth. For that matter, neither was pumpkin pie.
8. 17th-century Thanksgivings didn’t always mark times of peace
After the famous 1621 Plymouth celebration, numerous thanksgivings took place in different colonies during the 17th century. These were not all marked by storied camaraderie.
At the end of King Philip’s War (1675–1678), which was waged between Indigenous people and New England colonists and their Indigenous allies, an official Thanksgiving celebration was proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This followed days after Ousamequin’s son and hundreds of others were killed.
Thereafter, Plymouth and Massachusetts announced that they would observe 17 August as a day of Thanksgiving, praising God for saving them from their enemies.
9. Thanksgiving became a holiday in the US in 1789
Thanksgiving became a public holiday in the United States shortly after 28 September 1789, when the first Federal Congress passed a resolution requesting the president of the United States to identify a day of Thanksgiving. George Washington soon proclaimed Thursday 26 November 1789 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin”.
The date for Thanksgiving changed with successive presidents, but in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November as the date of a regular commemoration of Thanksgiving. Lincoln asserted the day’s prominence during the American Civil War.
10. FDR attempted to change the date of Thanksgiving
In 1939, Thanksgiving was moved to the second Thursday in November by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was concerned that a shortened Christmas shopping season might impede the economic recovery his series of ‘New Deal’ reforms had been designed to address.
Though 32 states accepted the change, 16 didn’t, which resulted in Thanksgiving falling on two different days until Congress set a fixed date for Thanksgiving on 6 October 1941. They settled on the last Thursday in November.