What Is the History of Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is a widespread annual event with a long history that is woven into the fabric of America's foundations.

Nov 20, 2023By Rosie Lesso, Managing Editor & Curator

 

Thanksgiving is the popular annual festival that takes place throughout the United States and Canada on the last Thursday of November. Typically associated with family get togethers and feasts including turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving has a long history that dates as far back as the early settlers who first travelled from Europe to the Americas. The feast was traditionally associated with celebrating a peaceful union between Native Americans and European settlers in autumn as the year’s harvest was gathered in. However, Thanksgiving remains a controversial event, with critics arguing it glosses over the brutal conflict faced by Native Americans during the early colonial eras. We take a closer look at the history of Thanksgiving as it evolved through the ages of American history.

 

The Plymouth Colonists

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall, 1882
Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall, 1882

 

One of the earliest and most popular possible origins of Thanksgiving took place amongst the Plymouth colonists and the Native American Wampanoag people. On September 1620, the Mayflower ship set off from Plymouth harbor in England, carrying a relatively small crew of 102 passengers made up of religious separatists. Each had grand ambitions of travelling to the so-called ‘New World’ and establishing a new community.

 

After an arduous and grueling journey lasting 66 days, the ship landed near the tip of Cape Cod, before heading to Massachusetts Bay. The first winter they endured here was extremely harsh as many continued to live on board the ship to hide from severe weather. By the spring, only half of the original travelers had survived, and many were in a terrible state. 

 

In March 1621, the remaining settlers, or ‘Pilgrims’ came ashore. Fortuitously they were greeted with friendship by a member of the Abenaki tribe, who spoke to them in English. They were then visited by a different Native American named Squanto, who had previously been captured as a slave before returning to his homeland. He and his community taught the Pilgrims how to survive off the land, catching fish, cultivating corn and pumpkins and gathering sap from maple trees. 

 

The Feast of 1621

Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925. Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts, New York.
Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925. Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts, New York.

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The pilgrims had their first successful corn harvest in the November of that year. To express their gratitude, the European settler Governor William Bradford organized a feast between the Pilgrims and the Native American Wampanoag people, an event that is widely recognized as the first (or one of the first) Thanksgiving feasts in US history. The symbiotic relationship between settlers and the Wampanoag tribe remained secure for more than 50 years. It was a remarkably point in American history, when European colonists and Native Americans lived together in peaceful harmony.

 

However, some historians have argued the Plymouth colonists were not the first to host a Thanksgiving feast. In fact, some believe the first Thanksgiving took place in Florida in 1565, when Spanish settlers shared a festive meal with the Native American Timucuan tribe. 

 

Traditional Foods

Traditional Thanksgiving foods which centre around turkey. Source: Oliver & Bonacini.
Traditional Thanksgiving foods which centre around turkey. Source: Oliver & Bonacini.

 

While there is little evidence on the food that was actually eaten during the earliest Thanksgivings, it seems likely that traditional Native American cooking methods and spices would have played a part. Historians believe the Plymouth colonists might have shared locally sourced and caught foods including deer, seafood and harvest fruits. Turkeys were certainly indigenous, but there are no records to suggest this is what they actually ate.

 

In fact, many of the foods now associated with Thanksgiving, including turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes were introduced in later centuries and have now become entrenched within the Thanksgiving tradition.

 

The American Revolution

battle of germantown american revolutionary war
Battle of Germantown, by Xavier della Gatta,1782. Source: the Museum of the American Revolution

 

Throughout the American Revolution various Thanksgiving-style events took place that celebrated victories as they took place. Meanwhile in 1789, George Washington led the first Thanksgiving proclamation of the US Government, which he called a day of gratitude marking the end of the war and the ratification of the Constitution.

 

Abraham Lincoln and National Thanksgiving Day

Source: Jewish Journal
Source: Jewish Journal

 

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared National Thanksgiving Day in the United States, to be held on the last Thursday of each November. The day of celebration, family get togethers, parades and feasts that we know of today largely came about due to the tireless lobbying of American author and abolitionist Sarah Josepha Hale. Such was her determined dedication to the cause; she became known as the “mother of Thanksgiving.”

 

The Day Is Shrouded in Controversy

Protestors gather for the National Day of Mourning on Cole’s Hill, an annual event that takes place every year on the same day as Thanksgiving.
Protestors gather for the National Day of Mourning on Cole’s Hill, an annual event that takes place every year on the same day as Thanksgiving.

 

Thanksgiving is not without its detractors, particularly those of Native American ancestry, who have argued that Thanksgiving has essentially covered up the violence and oppression between European settlers and Native Americans that led to many thousands of deaths. Since 1970, US protestors have gathered on Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock on the same day as Thanksgiving, to commemorate a National Day of Mourning in tribute to the lives of their ancestors.

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By Rosie LessoManaging Editor & CuratorRosie has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can enrich our experience of art.