History of Thanksgiving



Painting of the First Thanksgiving, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Thanksgiving is an annual holiday that’s been celebrated in the United States for years. Thanksgiving’s rich and complex history is part of what makes it an interesting, yet somewhat controversial, holiday.

The First Thanksgiving

In November, 1621, the British colonists had their first successful harvest in North America. They settled in Plymouth Bay after a 2 month journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the success of their first harvest, governor William Bradford organized a feast to celebrate. This is widely accepted as the first Thanksgiving.

To have their successful harvest, the pilgrims needed to learn North American farming habits. They learned these farming habits from Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag tribe.


Image of Squanto acting as an interpreter between the Native Americans and the pilgrims. CBC News

Squanto was found by an English explorer in 1614. He, along with around 24 other Wampanoag, was tricked into getting on an English ship. Once they were on, they were tied up. Later they would be sold into slavery in Spain.

Squanto eventually made it from Spain to England. It’s not very known how he accomplished this. According to Voa News, “Spanish monks enabled Squanto’s escape from Spain to England” or “a ship captain took him from Spain to London and later Newfoundland, where he lived among the English for several years.”

Throughout his time in England he learned to speak English. He sailed back to New England with Thomas Dermer, where he found that most of his tribe had died from disease brought from Europe.

Squanto met the pilgrims where their ship made landfall, his former village. According to CBC News “Squanto used his knowledge of the English language to act as an interpreter between the colonists and Indigenous people”

Thanksgiving Becoming an Official Holiday

Sarah Josepha Hale | American author | Britannica
Picture of Sarah Josepha Hale Encyclopedia Britannica

On October 3, 1789, George Washington gave his Thanksgiving Proclamation. “I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States” he said.

Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor for Godey’s Lady’s Book, launched a campaign to put pressure on politicians to make Thanksgiving an official holiday. In September 1863, she wrote a direct letter to president Lincoln. Her efforts were successful and on October 3, 1863, when Thanksgiving became an official holiday.

In 1941 president Roosevelt made Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. He did this to give an extra week of Christmas shopping which he hoped would boost the economy.