First published Thanksgiving 2008
One of the most popular stories ever told is about the first Thanksgiving. School children are taught time and time again of how in the Autumn of 1621, the pilgrims ate alongside the Indians in celebration of a successful harvest. Although they did have a three-day feast in celebration of such bounty, this "first Thanksgiving" was not a holiday but simply a gathering. There is little evidence that this feast of thanks led directly to our modern Thanksgiving Day holiday. Thanksgiving can, however, be traced back to 1863 when President Lincoln became the first president to proclaim Thanksgiving Day. The holiday has been a fixture of late November ever since.
The Pilgrims who sailed to this country aboard the Mayflower were originally members of the English Separatist Church. They were NOT the Puritans that we read so much about. Puritans did not believe in separating themselves from society, as the Pilgrims did. They had earlier fled their home in England and sailed to Holland (The Netherlands) to escape religious persecution. There, they enjoyed more religious tolerance, but they eventually became disenchanted with the Dutch way of life, thinking it ungodly. Seeking a better life, the Separatists negotiated with a London stock company to finance a pilgrimage to America. Most of those making the trip aboard the Mayflower were non-Separatists but were hired to protect the company's interests. Only about one-third of the original colonists were Separatists.
Governor William Bradford sent "four men fowling" after wild ducks and geese. It is not certain that wild turkey was part of their feast. However, it is certain that they had venison. The term "turkey" was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl.
Another modern staple at almost every Thanksgiving table is pumpkin pie yet it is unlikely that the first feast included that treat. The supply of flour had been long diminished so in actuality there was no bread or pastries of any kind. There is record though that they did eat boiled pumpkin and they produced a type of fried bread from their corn crop. There was also no milk, cider, potatoes, or butter. There were no domestic cattle for dairy products and the newly-discovered potato was still considered by many Europeans to be poisonous. But the feast did include fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums.
This "thanksgiving" feast however was not repeated the following year. In fact, many years passed before the event was repeated. It wasn't until June of 1676 that another Day of thanksgiving was proclaimed. On June 20 of that year the governing council of Charlestown Massachusetts held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the good fortune that had seen their community securely established. By unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving. It is notable that this thanksgiving celebration probably did not include the Indians as the celebration was meant partly to be in recognition of the colonists' recent victory over the "heathen natives," (see the proclamation).
A hundred years later, in October of 1777 all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. But it was a one-time affair.
George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed to it. There was discord among the colonies, many feeling the hardships of a few pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday. And later, President Thomas Jefferson opposed the idea of having a day of thanksgiving.
It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in her Boston Ladies' Magazine, and later, in Godey's Lady's Book. Finally, after a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale's obsession became a reality when, in 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a National Day of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was proclaimed by every president after Lincoln. The date was changed a couple of times, most recently by Franklin Roosevelt, who set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Public uproar against this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later. And in 1941, Thanksgiving was finally sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday, as the fourth Thursday in November.