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History of Thanksgiving Day (US)


Jump to:-    Background History  |  The First Thanksgiving  | What was Eaten at the First Thanksgiving Celebration |  Thanksgiving Day from  the 18th - 20th Centuries



Go to:  Thanksgiving Day Main Page  |  Main History Index Page  |  History of World Cuisines  


Historical Background History

In order to truly appreciate the foundations of Thanksgiving day, it is necessary to go right back to the beginning before the USA was colonised by Europeans when members of the Separatist Church which was a Puritan sect, fled their home in England to escape religious persecution.


Initially, they went to The Netherlands where enjoyed more religious tolerance. However the Dutch way of life wasn’t to their liking with many of them seeing it as profane, so in an effort to build a better life, a group of them negotiated with a London stock company to finance a pilgrimage to America and eventually set sail aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

It’s interesting to note that of the 102 people aboard the Mayflower, around 60 persons did not belong to this religious sect, but were hired to protect the company's interests.


The First Thanksgiving

Having landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620, by the summer of 1621, the harsh conditions and their lack of practical experience in farming the new land, resulted in the pilgrim populace being decimated, with almost half of them dying from disease, much of which was the direct result of lack of nutrients. It is now widely acknowledged that the remaining settlers wouldn’t have made it without the direct help of the native American Indians, who taught them how to grow local crops, gather wild edible foods,  catch fish and seafood and hunt wild animals.

In the Autumn of 1621, the settlers harvested a bounty of crops and decided to celebrate, together with the Wampanoag Indians who had helped them to survive. The feast was similar to a traditional English Harvest Festival and lasted three days. Whilst there were other, perhaps earlier examples of giving thanks to God, the celebrations at Plymouth are considered my many as having been the first Thanksgiving celebration by European settlers, and thus the founder of today’s tradition.


What was eaten at the first Thanksgiving in 1621

Perhaps we should start with what wasn’t on the menu. At that time, wheat wasn’t grown in the area and any stocks of flour which had been taken on the voyage to the new land were long gone by the autumn of 1621. Furthermore, they didn’t have ovens. It is therefore safe to say there wouldn’t have been any wheat bread, pastries or the now traditional pumpkin pie. As there were no domestic cows, there wouldn’t have been any beef, milk or butter either.

As with the flour, any sugar they had brought along was probably mostly gone, so there would have been no sweetened cranberry sauce. Neither would there have been corn on the cob as sweetcorn was mostly dried for keeping or sweet potatoes.

They did however probably eat boiled pumpkin, which apparently wasn’t an immediate hit with the Europeans, a type of fried bread made from corn, fish, wild fowl, berries, lobster, clams and venison which may have been spit-roasted over an open fire. It is also likely that they had taken spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper which they may have used as seasonings as well as herbs.

The pilgrims used spoons, knives, and their fingers but no forks and although salt was available on the table pepper was only used during cooking and not as a table condiment. All of the different dishes would be served at the same time and diners ate them in the order of their choice.

Below is an extract from "First Thanksgiving" by Edward Winslow: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1621 which gives a little insight into the festivities which occurred some time between 21st September and 11th November.

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty


Thanksgiving through the Ages


Whilst many observed the practice of thanksgiving or harvest celebrations after the 1621 festivities,  it wasn’t until 1789, shortly after the American Revolution, that George Washington made a proclamation which created the first Thanksgiving Day to be the 26th November, recommending “….a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

In 1863 during American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, prompted by a crusade of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, proclaimed the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day and every president since has issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation.

In 1941 the U.S. Congress passed a bill requiring that Thanksgiving Day be observed on the fourth Thursday of November and in December 1941 President Roosevelt signed the bill, making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law.

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