Thanksgiving Day in the United States celebrates the first harvest held by the settlers at Plymouth in 1621, in what is now Massachusetts. Because Plymouth and the pilgrims get so much attention, we sometimes forget that Plymouth was not the first English colony in the New World, the pilgrims were not the first English settlers, and their thanksgiving feast was not the first held here.
In fact, the first permanent English settlement in America was Jamestown, in what is now Virginia. Jamestown was founded thirteen years before Plymouth, and in December of 1619 the settlers at Jamestown held a thanksgiving feast—one full year before the pilgrims.
So why is the arrival of the Mayflower celebrated and not the Godspeed, the ship that brought the first Jamestown settlers here? It actually came down to publicity and politics. For about 200 years, America did not have much of a story to go with its origin. Plymouth was not considered anything special—just another New England port town. And Jamestown had long since been mostly plowed up for farmland.
But in 1820, the famous speaker Daniel Webster was invited to Plymouth to commemorate the bicentennial of the pilgrims’ landing. Because he was talking to Plymouth townspeople, Webster spoke about “our Pilgrim Fathers” and presented them as national heroes. Webster’s speech inspired people in the northern United States to start thinking of the pilgrims as the “first Americans.”
At first, people in the Southern states were not that interested in celebrating Thanksgiving. Since it focused on a New England story, Southerners saw it as a “Yankee” tradition. In fact, Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. This, of course, was a time when Southerners did not have any say in what happened in the Union. The first official Thanksgiving Day, as presented by President Abraham Lincoln, was held on August 6 of that year. After the war, in 1867, President Andrew Johnson made the event an annual occurrence, falling each year on the last Thursday of November.
Also, the food associated with Thanksgiving—turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie—is not exactly historically accurate. While the pilgrims may have had turkey, it’s more likely they ate duck or goose at their first thanksgiving. The Wampanoag Indians who joined the pilgrims at their feast probably brought deer, fish, eels, and shellfish such as crabs or clams.
Examine the origins and evolution of Thanksgiving; follow links to videos and more articles. From History.com.
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