Friday, November 22, 2013

History of Thanksgiving

In 1621, the Plymouth Colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared a feast that lasted several days. It was not called a holiday or Thanksgiving. It was simply a meal of gratitude because they had survived a year on a new continent. Of course, it only happened because  the Wamponoag Indians taught them how to stay alive and how to reap a good harvest over the summer. Most importantly, the Indians gave them hope that they could make it through another coming cold season.  Still sad that 42 of them had already died out of 102 pilgrims, either on the voyage, from the frigid weather, or sickness, the early settlers wanted to celebrate for the future.

Photo courtesy of Plimouth Plantation
According to Edward Winslow in a letter to a friend in England in 1621, he wrote, “And God be praised, we had a good increase…. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together….” He continued, "...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 on our governor, and upon the captain and others."

In my research, I sometimes find the reasons behind historic events that are not necessarily taught in school. For instance, peace between the Indians and early settlers lasted only 50 years or one generation. After which, the decimation of the Native Americans began with earnest as more people came to the New World. The new pilgrim arrivals required more land and took it from the Indians, either by legitimate trade, purchase, or war. The survival of the Indians was not uppermost in their minds, their own well-being came first. It surely was a sad time in American history. If only our forefathers would have been more compassionate with the plight of the American Indian. I often think there had to be a way for both peoples to live side by side in peace. Let's hope that history will never repeat that era.

Here are a few more facts, but on the lighter side of Thanksgiving – people always celebrated a harvest but the festivities were never on a Sunday because that was the day of the Lord, so a weekday was chosen.

In the 1700s – 1800s, there were regional celebrations of Thanksgiving throughout the colonies and states but no set date.  In 1863 amidst the Civil War, Lincoln declared a day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November.

Photo - Cast of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" – 1938

Then in 1939 during the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the holiday to the third Thursday of November. He wanted to stimulate the economy and give retailers more time for promoting Christmas sales. People didn't like it. They called it 'Franksgiving'. Reluctantly in 1941, President Roosevelt changed the day back to the fourth Thursday of November.

As far as the traditional food of the season as we know it, it was different by region throughout the 19th century. When the southern states finally joined in the holiday around the late 1800s, they brought with them some of our favorites, such as corn bread, ham, and sweet potatoes. In New Mexico, chilies and southwestern flavors appeared in stuffing. Crab was important on the menu around the Chesapeake Bay. Key Lime pie sat next to pumpkin pie in Key West. New England had a big influence on the Thanksgiving menu, adding cranberry sauce and probably scallops, especially here on Cape Cod.

There is no mention of Thanksgiving or Christmas in my historical novel, The Old Cape House because it was not celebrated as we know it today. The Puritans frowned upon dancing, singing, or pretty much anything that was fun. But every fall season around the harvest, I'm sure a thank you was on everyone's lips and in their hearts, happy that their cupboards and root cellars were stocked for the approaching cold season and that they would survive another winter once more. 

                                                              Happy Thanksgiving!

From our table to thankful for whatever good is in your life and wish the same to others. 


  1. That was really interesting, Barbara, especially the part about Franksgiving. I hadn't heard that before. Have a great holiday with your family!

  2. Thanks, I learned a lot also. Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

  3. It gives such a good feeling whenever I read your writing. Barb.
    Happy Holidays to you and family.

  4. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

  5. I do love this tradition! And, in fact, just this week I told my children that we were going to start it in our house. So I sent a card to Katie at college and all the kids are putting out their shoes tomorrow night. They are excited about it. So thank you!