History of Thanksgiving: the Secular and the Sacred


Mayflower II, Plimoth Plantation, MA


The origin of Thanksgiving Day in America has been attributed to a harvest feast held by the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. In 1621, Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony proclaimed a day of “thanksgiving” and prayer to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first harvest in America the year after their arrival on the merchant ship Mayflower.

However, the picture you usually see featuring a few Native American men joining the Pilgrims at the feast is a bit inaccurate. From original settler Edward Winslow in a letter to a friend in 1621, we know that the Wampanoag Chief, Massasoit, was accompanied by some 90 of his men to visit Plymouth for three days of fish, fowl, and venison.


Pilgrim Thanksgiving celebrant survivors of the first winter.

But of the 102 English settlers who had spent their first year on the Massachusetts coast, forty-five or about half the passengers had died by this time. This would have left about half the remaining fifty-seven English survivors as men. So the Native men outnumbered the Pilgrim men by over three to one!


Pilgrim Motivation

The idea of the Pilgrims fleeing England to come directly to America due to persecution is not entirely historically accurate, at least as the starting point. Instead, over a decade earlier, they had already left England for Holland as Dissenters of the Church of England. They were unwilling to comply with obligatory Church of England worship practices and were consequently subject to fines if they stayed in England. These Pilgrims were Puritan Calvinists in their theology and found the Dutch Calvinism more tolerant of their religious practice. However, they noticed that while in Holland, their children were forgetting how to speak English and were adopting Dutch customs too liberal for their sensibilities.


Mayflower Destination

Cape Cod

Landing: 500 miles off course

Therefore, they intended to remove to America, having heard of successful settlement in Virginia, and hoped to arrive in the north of Virginia Company at the Hudson River’s mouth, in an area chartered to be called “New England.” The Mayflower was not a passenger vessel but a merchant ship. I’ve stood inside the belly of the Mayflower II pictured above; it is snug. The Atlantic passage was difficult, one passenger and one crewman died, and one baby boy was born, named appropriately Oceanus.


Mayflower Voyage

The Pilgrims disembarked Holland by way of England, departing from Dartmouth, Devon, and spent about two months crossing the Atlantic for the American coast. The weather was not their friend.

Plymouth Rock

Plymouth Rock

They landed at Cape Cod. They could not reach the Hudson River, prevented by currents and shoals, landing instead at Provincetown Harbor, Massachusetts.

Ultimately the ship’s complement disembarked at New Plymouth, according to Thomas Faunce in 1741, a 94-year-old church elder who said his father — who arrived in Plymouth aboard the Mayflower — upon the exact spot at “Plymouth Rock.”


Mayflower Compact

Because they did not land at their original destination and lacked a charter for where they did land, the Pilgrims were worried that dissent among the non-Pilgrim passengers would result in mutiny and rebellion.

Mayflower Compact

William Bradford’s version of the Mayflower Compact

The Pilgrims wrote up what was later called the “Mayflower Compact,” a document of temporary laws to rule themselves by majority rule. Forty-one adult males and two indentured servants signed it, creating America’s first enduring democratic self-government document. The document was probably written by the pastor William Brewster. His journal summarized it in calling for:

  • Continued allegiance to King James I of England, notwithstanding their relocation for religious freedom
  • Laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices for the good of the colony
  • One society with an effort to work together to further it
  • Living in accordance with the Christian faith


Thanksgiving Controversy

Several other accounts compete for “First Thanksgiving” in America, both in terms of date and location.
  • Puritans: this group arrived in America from England 9 or 10 years after the Pilgrims and claimed a thanksgiving holiday in Boston in 1631. Despite the two groups’ similarities, there are several notable differences and motivations for why they came, as I describe here.
  • Irish: on February 21, 1621, a ship arrived from Dublin with food stocks at Plymouth Rock for the starving Pilgrims. The date differs from the aforementioned Autumn thanksgiving feast date.
  • Spanish: more a religious service than a holiday, explorers in San Elizario, Texas, held a thanksgiving feast in 1592. Other claims point to a Spanish celebration on September 8, 1565, in St Augustine, Florida.
  • Virginia: the founding charter in Charles City County, Virginia by the Berkeley Hundred — the early Virginia Colony’s Berkeley Plantation land grant — pins a thanksgiving service to 1619.


Thanksgiving Proclamations

  • One of the first general proclamations was made in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1676.
  • President George Washington in 1789 issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation in honor of the new constitution, establishing Thursday, November 26 as a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin.” During the 19th century, an increasing number of states observed the day annually, each appointing its own day.
  • President Abraham Lincoln, on October 3, 1863, by presidential proclamation, appointed the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day due to the unremitting efforts of Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book.


Thanksgiving in the 20th Century

Holiday Inn

Scene from Holiday Inn

Each succeeding president made similar proclamations until Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. During his presidency, there were two Novembers that had five Thursdays. In response to business leaders’ repeated requests for a more extended pre-Christmas shopping season, FDR appointed the next to last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving, primarily to allow a special holiday weekend for the national public holiday. Not all leaders agreed: sixteen state governors continued to set Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November as had been traditional. This went on for two years.

Finally, on Dec. 26, 1941, both Congress and the President agreed to the fourth Thursday of November. Now you understand that scene in the movie “Holiday Inn” where the confused turkey jumps between alternate Thursdays in the calendar in November.


Thanksgiving Meaning

The idea of a day set apart to celebrate the harvest’s completion and render homage to the Spirit who caused the fruits and crops to grow is both ancient and universal. The practice of designating a day of thanksgiving for specific spiritual or secular benefits has been followed in many countries.

Thanksgiving Day remains a day when many express gratitude to God for blessings and celebrate material bounty.


P.S. I’ve often been asked if the British also celebrate a day of Thanksgiving. They do, but they mark it on July 4th.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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