Thanksgiving, one of our country’s oldest holidays, has roots in both the Native American and European traditions. The Wampanoags and other Native American tribes traditionally held ceremonies of thanksgiving for successful harvests and instances of good fortune. Long before coming to North America, Europeans too gave thanks for good harvests with feasting and games. Today’s American holiday, though very different from ceremonies of the 1600s, still retains elements of both traditions. The most famous Thanksgiving – the Plymouth Thanksgiving – was not, in actuality, the “first” thanksgiving. In addition to the thanksgiving ceremonies of indigenous peoples, historical documentation shows that settlers’ thanksgiving celebrations had previously taken place in the regions that would become Maine, Virginia, Texas, and Florida. That said, the Plymouth thanksgiving of 1621 came to be the best-known of these early feasts.
In the Puritan tradition, a thanksgiving day served as a kind of second Sabbath in recognition of God’s providence. Thanks to these religious connotations, the New England colonies were proclaiming regular autumnal thanksgivings by the mid-1600s. The first national thanksgiving wasn’t proclaimed until 1777. Issued by the young Continental Congress during the middle of the Revolution, it was a solemn day meant to recognize the recent American victory at Saratoga. In the same vein, another Thanksgiving was proclaimed on Thursday, November 26, 1789 to celebrate the new constitution.
Thanksgiving did not catch on as a nationwide holiday until the 1860s during the Civil War. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, was inspired by firsthand accounts of the Plymouth Thanksgiving and began to promote a widespread holiday in her magazine. She also petitioned several U.S. presidents over the course of 15 years, finally meeting with success when President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving in 1863. Prior to this point and following the founding era, Thanksgiving was celebrated on a local basis, most often in New England.
Following Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving became an established tradition, though not a fixed annual event. U.S. presidents opted to proclaim Thanksgiving each year – the last Thursday of November became customary. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to change the day to the second-to-last Thursday in 1939, but backlash prompted Congress to permanently establish an annual Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November. In 2009, Native Americans were recognized for their important contributions to the United States when President Barack Obama designated the Friday after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day.
In recognition of Thanksgiving Day, we have gathered together historical resources on early American life, the Thanksgiving tradition, and the Native American heritage. As Americans, we are participating in a long-standing tradition that precedes even the Founding. While most of us observe the holiday as a time to be thankful for food, family, and friends, previous generations used Thanksgiving not only to celebrate successful harvests, but to honor battles won and the birth of the U.S. Constitution.
Below is a collection of resources on early American life, the Thanksgiving tradition, and the Native American heritage. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
Thanksgiving Proclamation on Occasion of the New Constitution
[New York, 3 October 1789]
By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States 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.”
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Primary Accounts of the First Thanksgiving
“…They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports…”
“…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 fruits 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 amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst 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 on 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…”
Selected online resources on Thanksgiving:
The What So Proudly We Hail online curriculum offers an ebook,“The Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that considers the meaning of Thanksgiving Day, with selections by American authors such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Jack London, Langston Hughes, Sarah Orne Jewett and O. Henry, to name just a few.
Thanksgiving is a venerable and much beloved American holiday. But what do we celebrate on Thanksgiving? In this ebook, we begin by exploring the origins and traditions of the Thanksgiving holiday, and then consider our private and public blessings. The ebook also features two in-depth discussion guides, one for George Washington’ s Thanksgiving Proclamation and one for O. Henry’s classic short story “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.” Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion.
Although we most often associate Lincoln’s presidency with the Civil War, it was also the time in which Thanksgiving became an official national holiday. This proclamation, written by Secretary of State William Seward in 1863, designates the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. A reflection of the times, the proclamation also asks that citizens “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”
The Pilgrim Hall Museum offers a wide variety of online resources on Thanksgiving. Highlights of the collection include an entire catalog of Thanksgiving proclamations, from 1723-2019, and a biography of Sarah Josepha Hale, the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.”
“On Thanksgiving Day, November 23, 1939, Franklin Roosevelt carved the turkey at the annual Thanksgiving Dinner at Warm Springs, Georgia and wished all Americans across the country a Happy Thanksgiving… Unfortunately, his greeting went unanswered in some states: many Americans were not observing Thanksgiving on the same day as the President. Instead, they were waiting to carve their turkeys on the following Thursday.” – Visit the FDR Presidential Library to find out why Americans were celebrating a national holiday on two different days.
The Library of Congress offers a Thanksgiving teacher’s guide with images, documents, and stories that demonstrate the holiday’s transcendence of religion and culture in the United States.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on Thanksgiving, colonial America, the Native American heritage or their histories and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.