The Origins of Thanksgiving

by ADRIAN MORGAN November 22, 2017
The story of Thanksgiving is one that involves many of the great things that are generally associated with America – but it has become infused with myth. The Pilgrim Fathers are sometimes portrayed as “Puritans” which they were not. In many ways the Pilgrims were free thinkers. Several who had made the journey from Plymouth had earlier been living as exiles in the Netherlands.
The original Pilgrims belonged to the “English Dissenters” a religious group who wanted to worship God in their own way, without belonging to the hierarchical state church. At that time, they had suffered persecutions for not attending official “Anglican” church services. Genuine Puritans obliged the government of King James I, and attended Church of England services. Anyone who did not attend these official Sunday services was fined. Two of the leaders of the English Dissenters had been executed for “sedition,” and these executions hastened the desire of the Pilgrims to leave England. The Netherlands had provided a safe refuge for many of their number, but America seemed more promising.
There were two boats that were scheduled to make the journey – the Mayflower and also the Speedwell. The latter boat developed problems on two initial attempts to set sail, and eventually only the Mayflower crossed the Atlantic, leaving in September of 1620. A year earlier, the Pilgrims had gained a permit to settle in North Virginia in 1619.
William Bradford (1590 – 1657), a 30-year old man at the time of the journey, would write a journal, whose contents were later published as “Of Plymouth Plantation.”  He was traveling with his wife, but they had to leave their four-year old son behind. At this time, the troupe of Pilgrims heading for America were calling themselves “The Saints.” On November 11, 1620, they arrived in Cape Cod. The “Saints” were happy when they had arrived, but Bradford noted:
But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considered ye same. Being thus passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no friends to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. ..
On November 15, a smaller boat (a sloop, called a “shallop” by Bradford) was sent out with an advance party, while the majority of the Pilgrims remained in the Mayflower. The first Native Americans  encountered by the advance party were fearful and retreated into woods. When a band of about thirty settlers came across an abandoned village, they appear to have stolen what they could. As Bradford wrote:
ther was allso found 2. of their houses covered with matts, and sundrie of their implements in them, but the people were rune away and could not be seen; also ther was found more of their corne, and of their beans of various collours. The corne and beans they brought away, purposing to give them full satisfaction when they should meete with any of them (as about some 6. months afterward they did, to their good contente). And here is to be noted a speciall providente of God, and a great mercie to this poore people, that hear they gott seed to plant them corne the next year, or els they might have starved, for they had none, nor any liklyhood to get any till the season had beene past (as the sequell did manyfest). Neither is it lickly they had had this, if the first viage had not been made, for the ground was now all covered with snow, and hard frozen. But the Lord is never wanting unto his in their greatest needs; let his holy name have all the praise.
The sloop made its way further down the coast, and at one stage, near a point where a natural harbor was discovered, there was a confrontation with the “Indians”.  The exploratory party retrieved their arms and cutlasses and most of the indigenous people retreated, but one man hid behind a tree and continued to fire arrows at the settlers. A musket ball fired into the trunk sent splinters flying and the archer ran off.
The natural harbour lay near an area that had fresh running streams and had been cleared for farming, with cornfields. This was the site of a former village of the Patuxet, who had been virtually exterminated by plagues (probably smallpox), brought by contact with English fishermen, between 1616 and 1619.
The site of the former Patuxet community was chosen to be the place where the Pilgrims would establish their home. When the exploring party arrived back at the Mayflower, Bradford would discover that his wife Dorothy had slipped off the side of the ship and had drowned. No mention of this event is made in his journal, and some historians have suggested that Dorothy Bradford may have committed suicide.
On December 16 the exploratory party returned to the harbor and on December 25, they began to construct the first building, a communal house.  The remainder of the Pilgrims resided in what was felt to be the comparative safety of the Mayflower, but conditions were bad. As Bradford recorded:
In these hard and difficulte beginings they found some discontents and murmurings arise amongst some, and mutinous speeches and carriags in other; but they were soone quelled and overcome by the wisdome, patience, and just and equall carrage of things by the Govr and better part, which clave faithfully togeather in the maine. But that which was most sadd and lamentable was, that in 2. or 3. moneths time halfe of their company dyed, especialy in Jan : and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvie and other diseases, which this long vioage and their inacomodate condition had brought upon them; so as ther dyed some times 2. or 3. of a day, in the foresaid time; that of 100. and odd persons, scarce 50. remained., And of these in the time of most distres, ther was but 6. or 7. sound persons, who, to their great comendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundante of toyle and hazard of their owne health, fetched them woode, made them fires, drest them meat, made their beads, washed their lothsome cloaths, cloathed and uncloathed them; in a word, did all the homly and necessarie offices for them which dainty and quesie stomacks cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cherfully, without any grudging in the least, shewing herein their true love unto their freinds and bretheren. A rare example and worthy to be remembred. Tow of these 7. were Mr. William Brewster, ther reverend Elder, and Myles Standish, ther Captein and military comander, unto whom my selfe, and many others, were much beholden in our low and sicke condition.
Losing more than half of their number was a blow. Of the 102 people who had left Plymouth in England, only 44 survived. As the Mayflower settlers tried to establish the settlement which would later be known as Plymouth:
All this while the Indians carne skulking about them, and would sometimes show them selves aloofe of, but when any aproached near them, they would rune away. And once they stoale away their tools wher they had been at worke, and were gone to diner.
On March 16, one native man named Samaset introduced himself to them, and he could speak limited English. The stolen tools were returned. Samaset introduced them to another man called Squanto, who had been in England. Squanto (Tisquantum) was a Patuxet who had earlier been abducted by a slaver and was taken to Spain, but he had fled to England. From there he had joined with a merchant who had gone to Newfoundland, and from there Squanto had returned to the North Virginia (New England) coast. Squanto would act as interpreter and would be a friend to the Pilgrims until his death.  A few days after their first encounter, Squanto and Samaset would introduce the Pilgrims to their “sachem” or leader, Massasoit. This man was the head of the Pokanoket and head of the Wampanoag confederacy of tribes.
Massasoit negotiated a treaty with John Carver, the leader of the Plymouth settlers, where both sides agreed to assist the other if attacked by hostile groups. The treaty maintained that there would be mutual respect and if any individual from either side had transgressed against the other group, he would be given up to the other side for punishment. Carver would die within a month, and in his place William Bradford became the governor of Plymouth.
Around the middle of July 1623, after a prolonged period of drought, the settlers prayed for deliverance. When the rains fell, as Bradford reported:
It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degreese in that abundance, as that the earth was thorowly wete and soked therwith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corne and other fruits, as was wonderfull to see, and made the Indeans astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them shuch seasonable showers, with enterchange of faire warme weather, as, through his blessing, caused a fruitfull and liberall harvest, to their no small comforte and rejoycing. For which mercie (in time conveniente) they also sett aparte a day of thanksgiveing. This being overslipt in its place, I thought meet here to inserte the same.
Here, then, is the first mention of a day being set aside for Thanksgiving, though in Bradford’s “On Plymouth Plantation,” the exact date of when this day of Thanksgiving was first celebrated is not mentioned.
A supposed “Thanksgiving proclamation” by Bradford claims that the Thanksgiving Day should be on November 29, though the words of this proclamation are almost certainly a 20th century invention. The signing of this so-called proclamation document is patently absurd – “Ye Governor of Ye Colony.” The term “ye” is a quaint pseudo-medievalism more suited to Robin Hood movies starring Erroll Flynn and set in a mythical “Merrie England” than it is to William Bradford. Certainly, a tourist in England can frequently encounter some ghastly cafe calling itself “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe,” but despite his arcane and irregular spelling, Bradford’s command of English language is sophisticated and close to modern speech. Nowhere does he substitute the word “the” with “ye.”
Hoax documents aside, the first Thanksgivings would probably have been a similar event to the Harvest Festivals traditionally practiced in England and elsewhere. These traditionally take place on the Sunday nearest the Harvest Moon (the full moon closest to the Fall Equinox – September 23).
Moving forward in time, the first authentic document of a “Thanksgiving Proclamation” is by George Washington, in which he suggested that a “Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer” should be held on Thursday, November 26, 1789. The full original text of this proclamation, written in New York on October 3, 1789, is available on the Family Security Matters website today.
Washington’s attempt to institute a national Thanksgiving Day did not become accepted as an official national holiday for another seventy four years. Thanksgiving celebrations took place, but at various times in various regions. There was no unifying date or “movable feast” day that could be agreed on throughout all the states. The person who was most influential in getting a national day of Thanksgiving officially inaugurated was Sarah Josepha Hale (1788 – 1879). Hale, an editor and writer petitioned four presidents - Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan – to persuade them to institute a national day of Thanksgiving.
As editor of the Ladies Book, Hale wrote in 1851:
“Thanks- giving Day is the national pledge of Christian faith in God acknowledging him as the dispenser of blessings .... The observance of the day has been gradually extending, and for a few years past efforts have been made to have a fixed day which will be universally observed throughout the country .... The last Thursday in November was selected as the day, on a whole, most appropriate."
On September 28, 1863, then aged 74, Sarah Josepha Hale wrote to Abraham Lincoln. She requested that the “day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival... You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.”
In 1863, America was in the midst of Civil War, but the notion of Thanksgiving was taken up by President Abraham Lincoln. His proclamation announcing the official inauguration of Thanksgiving Day. was delivered on October 3, 1863, the anniversary of George Washington’s proclamation. This was five weeks before he gave his famous Gettysburg Address.
The full text of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation can be read here.
Today, we at Family Security Matters wish you all a happy and fulfilling Thanksgiving, and for those who have been subjected to TSA intrusions while traveling to be with your loved ones, may you be able to feel thankful for the benefits you have. But most of all, for those who have loved ones who are working far away, or serving their country overseas, we extend our best wishes to you, and hope that soon you may be reunited. As Max Ehrmann stated in his poem “Desiderata:”
“...With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

Adrian Morgan is a British-born writer and artist. He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. 


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