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.

Edward WinslowHowever, the picture you usually see featuring a few Native American men joining the Pilgrims at the feast is slightly inaccurate. From original settler Edward Winslow in a first-person letter to a friend back in England in 1621, we learn that the Wampanoag chief Ousamequin, better known as Massasoit, was accompanied by some 90 of his men to visit Plymouth for three days of fish, fowl, and venison. His lengthy letter is now known as “Mourt’s Relation.”

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.


pilgrim burial

“This monument marks the first burying ground in Plymouth of the Passengers of the Mayflower.” Plymouth, MA


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 Thanksgiving celebrant survivors of the first winter.


Pilgrims’ 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 Dutch Calvinism more tolerant of their religious practice. However, they noticed that while in Leiden, Holland, their children forgot how to speak English and adopted Dutch customs that were too liberal for their sensibilities.


Mayflower Destination

Cape Cod Plymouth Rock

Landing: 500 miles off course

Therefore, they intended to remove to America, having heard of previous British 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 Oceanus appropriately.


Mayflower Voyage

Most of the Pilgrims disembarked Leiden by way of England. The Mayflower left London, sailed down the River Thames to the sea, and anchored in Southampton, Hampshire. There, it awaited a companion ship, the Speedwell, which was departing Leiden with passengers and intended to join the Mayflower in crossing the Atlantic.

But the Speedwell sprang a leak and had to be repaired. Both ships returned to Dartmouth, Devon, for repairs. After departing, the Speedwell again sprang a leak off Land’s End on the Cornwall coast, and both ships returned to Plymouth, Devon.

After combining goods and passengers, the Mayflower alone departed Plymouth 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. Pastor William Brewster probably wrote the document. His journal summarized it by 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 regarding 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 September 8, 1565, Spanish celebration 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.” He asked Americans to give gratitude to God for “the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed.” During the 19th century, an increasing number of states observed the day annually, each appointing its own day.
  • President Abraham Lincoln, by presidential proclamation on October 3, 1863, 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 and author of Mary Had A Little Lamb. She had unsuccessfully petitioned three previous presidents before she found a sympathetic ear with Lincoln, who had recently lost his young son Willie. The Civil War had forced Americans to see the fragility of their national existence. Lincoln believed that fragility had made gratitude all the more important.


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 December 26, 1941, 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 an occasion 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 observe it on July 4th.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro 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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