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A Brief Historical Look at Thanksgiving in the United States

By Rachel Brooks

The US brings in Thanksgiving dinners with turkey-furnished feasts and hallowed odes to joy. Yet, the history of the Thanksgiving holiday is not merely the colorful whimsical time that our traditions take it for.  Here follows the history of the first Thanksgiving in the US and how the holiday became Federal. At its heart, Thanksgiving reflects the resiliency and virtue of we the American people. This is a magnificent time to reflect upon who we are as a nation, and who we will be if we remember where we first come from. 

 “Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, 1620 ” by Andrews, Joseph, Rothermel, Peter Frederick_ 19th century. Public Domain, with a publication of pre-January 1, 1924


It all started in the untamed forests of Plymouth Rock, MA 398 years ago. 

Susan Hardman Moore, of the Yale University Press, generated a record of Thanksgiving in her 2014 publication The Evolution of Thanksgiving. In it, she recounts the earlier, albeit vague, account of the Plymouth Colony, 1621 Thanksgiving celebration. It was penned by Edward Winslow, a man who would become a future leader of the Plymouth colony. 

An excerpt from “A letter sent from New England to a Friend in these Parts” by Edward Winslow is as follows, 

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor (William Bradford) sent four men on fowling, that so we might  after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with little help beside, served the Company almost a week…many of the Indians coming among us…for three days were entertained and feasted: and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the Plantation.”  

“2006_10_09” by Dennis S. Hurd is licensed under CC0 1.0 


Winslow’s account is where the first pilgrim traditional celebration stems from. William Bradford also went on to describe turkey dinner celebrations in the next 10 years of life at Plymouth.  A harvest Thanksgiving went on to be a New England custom for the next 100 years. 

The national holiday dubbed Thanksgiving was not formed into a unified American thought until 206 years later. It was, in great part, formed by the patriotic efforts of 19th-century Americans. With special regards to the 19th-century writer, Sarah Josepha Hale. Hail described the perfect Thanksgiving holiday in her novel Northwood published in 1827, which you may read here. She also gave specific instructions for a Thanksgiving celebration in her later piece The Good Housekeeper published in 1839. 

Hale petitioned Abraham Lincoln to Federalize the holiday in 1863, deep in the throes of the Civil War. Lincoln responded to Hale’s petition with a call to “the whole American people” to observe the last Thursday in November  as a day of thanksgiving and prayer to quote “heal the wounds of the nation.” 

We are on the eve of deep civil unrest in our nation. President Trump’s impeachment looms over us with the shadow of the most unpopular presidency in United States history. We approach an election year between two parties who are savagely opposed. It is on the eve of so much controversy, that this beautiful reminder returns. This Thanksgiving, remember this holiday’s treasured place in the history of the American people. Remember what we_not as Republicans or Democrats_but as Americans have survived. If we hold fast to the sacred and the brave things in our past, we will survive even this as a whole American people. 

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