The site and date of origin of Thanksgiving are matters of dispute, with regional claims being made by widely disparate locations in North America. The chief claims are: Saint Augustine, Florida – 1565; Baffin Island, Canada – 1578; Jamestown, Virginia – 1619 and Plymouth, Massachusetts – 1621.
Thanksgiving in Plymouth
The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth in December of 1620. No further ships arrived in Plymouth until immediately after the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth – the Fortune arrived in November of 1621.
According to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, there are two (and only two) primary sources for the events of autumn 1621 in Plymouth that suggest the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth: Edward Winslow writing in Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford writing in Of Plymouth Plantation:
Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation: “our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours;”
“they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes …”
“many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted …”
“and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. “
“And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.”
William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation: “They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty …”
“for as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion.”
“All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees).”
“And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. …”
“Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to yt proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.”
As noted, at the end of the 1621 summer, when harvest was in, Governor John Carver called for a special celebration. The colonists began to gather food for a traditional English “harvest home.”
This festival was held throughout England at harvest’s end to give thanks for the bounty and celebrate the end of the most intense period of work for farmers.
The Native Americans traditionally celebrated a harvest festival similar to the harvest home.
Turner said what most people do not know about the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth is that the Wampanoag and Pilgrims did not sit down for a big turkey dinner and it was not an event that the Wampanoag knew about or were invited to in advance. In September/October 1621, the Pilgrims had just harvested their first crops, and they had a good yield.
They “sent four men on fowling,” which comes from the one paragraph account by Pilgrim Edward Winslow, one of only two historical sources of this famous harvest feast. Winslow also stated, “we exercised our arms.”
“Most historians believe what happened was Massasoit got word that there was a tremendous amount of gun fire coming from the Pilgrim village,” Turner said. “So he thought they were being attacked and he was going to bear aid.”
When the Wampanoag showed up, they were invited to join the Pilgrims in their feast, but there was not enough food to feed the chief and his 90 warriors.
“He [Massasoit] sends his men out, and they bring back five deer, which they present to the chief of the English town [William Bradford].”
“So, there is this whole ceremonial gift-giving, as well. When you give it as a gift, it is more than just food,” said Kathleen Wall, a Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimoth Plantation.
The harvest feast lasted for three days.
No other ships arrived in Plymouth until after the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. The Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth are all the Mayflower survivors.
Thanksgiving in Hawai‘i
It’s not clear when the first western Thanksgiving feast was held in Hawaiʻi, but from all apparent possibilities, the first recorded one took place in Honolulu and was held among the families of the American missionaries from New England.
According to the reported entry in Lowell Smith’s journal on December 6, 1838: “This day has been observed by us missionaries and people of Honolulu as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God. Something new for this nation.”
“The people turned out pretty well and they dined in small groups and in a few instances in large groups. We missionaries all dined at Dr. Judd’s and supped at Brother Bingham’s. … An interesting day; seemed like old times – Thanksgiving in the United States.”
Laura Judd, in Sketches of Life in Honolulu noted on January 1, 1841: “There were twenty-five adults and thirty-two children of the station in Honolulu, and a proposition to unite in appropriate religious exercises and a Thanksgiving dinner, met with unanimous approval. …”
“Each lady was to furnish such dishes as suited her taste and convenience, while the table arrangements were the portion of one individual. … At three o’clock we had donned our best apparel, and sat down at the long table to enjoy a double feast.”
The first Thanksgiving Proclamation in Hawaiʻi appears to have been issued on November 23, 1849, and set the 31st day of December as a date of Thanksgiving.
US National Holiday
The celebratory day of Thanksgiving changed over time.
The Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777. A somber event, it specifically recommended “that servile labor and such recreations (although at other times innocent) may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment [and should] be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”
Presidents Washington, Adams and Monroe proclaimed national Thanksgivings, but the custom fell out of use by 1815, after which the celebration of the holiday was limited to individual state observances. By the 1850s, almost every state and territory celebrated Thanksgiving. (plimoth-org)
In the 19th century, the modern Thanksgiving holiday started to take shape. In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, campaigned for an annual national thanksgiving holiday.
But it wasn’t until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared two national Thanksgivings; one in August to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, and the other in November to give thanks for “general blessings.” It’s the second one that we celebrate today. (National Geographic)
Neither Lincoln nor his successors, however, made the holiday a fixed annual event.
Finally, on December 26, 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law a bill making the date of Thanksgiving a matter of federal law, fixing the day as the fourth Thursday of November.
Click the following link to a general summary about the First Thanksgiving: