Primary Source: Thanksgiving Through Four Centuries

One of the educational staples passed on to American school children is the tale of The First Thanksgiving. The pilgrims, as it goes, arrived in Plymouth and established their colony in 1620, yet were decimated by a harsh winter that followed. The native Tisquantum (more commonly known as Squanto) helped by teaching them the best way to fish and plant corn, and the next year, when the harvest eventually came in, the pilgrims invited the Native Americans to their dinner table, which was laden with turkey, to celebrate.

As with most American myths, some of it is true and much of it is dubious. Only two contemporaneous accounts of that meal survive, both of which are included here. But historians differ on when the First Thanksgiving in America actually took place — sometime in the 1500s? 1607? 1610? 1619? 1621? — and whether that label really matters.

For most Americans throughout the intervening four hundred years, the debate misses the point. Thanksgiving, after all, is about nurturing relationships, gathering together and counting blessings. (And maybe football.) To what extent, through wars, depressions, and pandemics, have Americans changed the way they celebrate Thanksgiving? To what extent has the meaning of the holiday changed?

“A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” 1973 (ABC)

Original members of the Mayflower describe a Thanksgiving meal. (1621)

Edward Winslow was a senior leader of the Separatists who left Europe on the Mayflower in 1620, and was one of those who signed the famous Mayflower Compact. He wrote an account of a Thanksgiving meal in Mourt’s Relation, one of his many works. It is this meal, despite others having being documented before it, that became the mythical First Thanksgiving in American folklore.

[O]ur 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.

Edward Winslow.

William Bradford arrived on the Mayflower with Winslow. He became the second governor of the colony and wrote a history of it, Of Plymouth Plantation, in which he includes his version of the event.

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 wante. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, 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 aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to y’ proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports.

William Bradford.
A 1925 recreation of Jennie Brownscombe’s earlier 1914 painting of the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth. It omits the Plains Indian headdresses that were criticized as non-historically accurate in her 1914 version.

A minister’s daughter enjoys Thanksgiving amidst the Revolution. (1779)

In the middle of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress set aside time to recommend that December 9th that year “be a day of public and solemn thanksgiving to Almighty God for his mercies.” Juliana Smith, the eighteen-year old daughter of a minister in Connecticut, gladly obliged. She describes her family’s celebration in a letter to her cousin.

Dear Cousin Betsey,

When Thanksgiving Day was approaching, our dear Grandmother Smith, who is sometimes a little desponding of Spirit as you well know, did her best to persuade us that it would be better to make it a Day of Fasting & Prayer in view of the Wickedness of our Friends & the Vileness of our Enemies, I am sure you can hear Grandmother say that and see her shake her cap border. But indeed there was some occasion for her remarks, for our resistance to an unjust Authority has cost our beautiful Coast Towns very dear the last year & all of us have had much to suffer. . . .

This year it was Uncle Simeon’s turn to have the dinner at his house, but of course we all helped them as they help us when it is our turn, & there is always enough for us all to do. All the baking of pies & cakes was done at our house & we had the big oven heated & filled twice each day for three days before it was all done & everything was GOOD, though we did have to do without some things that ought to be used. Neither Love nor (paper) Money could buy Raisins, but our good red cherries dried without the pits, did almost as well & happily Uncle Simeon still had some spices in store. The tables were set in the Dining Hall and even that big room had no space to spare when we were all seated. The Servants had enough ado to get around the Tables & serve us all without over-setting things. There were our two Grandmothers side by side. They are always handsome old Ladies, but now, many thought, they were handsomer than ever, & happy they were to look around upon so many of their descendants. Uncle & Aunt Simeon presided at one Table, & Father & Mother at the other. Besides us five boys & girls there were two of the Gales & three Elmers, besides James Browne & Ephraim Cowles. We had them at our table because they could be best supervised there. Most of the students had gone to their own homes for the week, but Mr. Skiff & Mr. — were too far away from their homes. They sat at Uncle Simeon’s table & so did Uncle Paul & his family, five of them in all, & Cousins Phin & Poll. Then there were six of the Livingston family next door. They had never seen a Thanksgiving Dinner before, having been used to keep Christmas Day instead, as is the wont in New York Province. Then there were four Old Ladies who have no longer Homes or Children of their own & so came to us. They were invited by my Mother, but Uncle and Aunt Simeon wished it so. . . .

A colonial Thanksgiving.

A Thanksgiving enthusiast campaigns for a national holiday. (1847)

Sarah Josepha Hale is most famous for her nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but her writing career, both in fiction and nonfiction, spanned decades. Throughout her life Hale espoused Thanksgiving and its virtues, and as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book advocated often for the Thanksgiving holiday to be made national. Eventually her editorials and a personal letter caught the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, and in 1863 he proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. Below is an op-ed Hale published in 1847.

Our Holidays — We have but two that we can call entirely national. The New Year is a holiday to all the world, and Christmas to all Christians — but the “Fourth of July” and “Thanksgiving Day” can only be enjoyed by Americans. The annual observance of Thanksgiving Day was, to be sure, mostly confined to the New England States, till within a few years. We are glad to see that this good old puritan custom is becoming popular throughout the Union. The past year saw it celebrated in twenty-one or two of the States. It was holden on the same day, November 26th, in seventeen, we believe. Would that the next Thanksgiving might be observed in all the states on the same day. Then, though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing, that all were enjoying the blessings of the day. From the St. John’s to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific border, the telegraph of human happiness would move every heart to rejoice simultaneously, and render grateful thanks to God for the blessings showered on our favored country. As this is a subject in which ladies should take a deep interest, will it be thought presumptuous if our “Book,” as their especial organ, leads the way in this good work of union in Thanksgiving? The “Lady’s Book” then suggests that, from this year, 1847, henceforth and forever, as long as the Union endures, the last Thursday in November be the DAY set apart by every State for its annual Thanksgiving. Will not the whole press of the country advocate this suggestion?

Thanksgiving Day in 1860. (Harper’s Weekly)

Americans try to give thanks in the Great Depression. (1930s)

With the crash of the stock market in 1929, one of many critical factors, the United States plummeted into a great depression that lasted over a decade, though farmers had been experiencing financial hardship the entire 1920s. At the nadir of the Depression, the country suffered a 25% unemployment rate and the economy ground to a halt. Yet Thanksgiving still arrived every year. Each person had a choice to make: become jaded by the irony of giving thanks while mired in poverty, or remain optimistic for the future and grateful for what little he or she had? In the photos below aggregated by the Daily Mail, Americans of all classes demonstrate how they celebrated Thanksgiving in the face of hardship.

Homeless men at the Bowery Mission eat their Thanksgiving Day dinner.
Men eat their Thanksgiving meal at sawhorses at the New York City Municipal Lodging House, 1931.
A boy picks his turkey for the Thanksgiving table.
An upper-class woman buys a turkey from a farmer, 1927.
A family sits down to Thanksgiving dinner at a Pennsylvania country house, c. 1940.
A sharecropper family says grace around a half-gallon fruit jar of pickled tomatoes, 1939.
A boy offers a turkey some seeds in one hand while holding an ax in the other.

A President-elect sends out a Thanksgiving message. (2008)

Despite the holiday being fixed on the calendar on every fourth Thursday in November, it has become a yearly tradition for the president to make a Thanksgiving proclamation. George Washington was the first who did so, but it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving that it became a ceremonial presidential duty. In 2008, President-elect Barack Obama, in one of his first addresses to the nation, focused his message on community service and those serving in the military.

This week, the American people came together with families and friends to carry on this distinctly American tradition. We gave thanks for loved ones and for our lasting pride in our communities and our country. We took comfort in good memories while looking forward to the promise of change. . . .

It’s a testament to our national character that so many Americans took time out this Thanksgiving to help feed the hungry and care for the needy. On Wednesday, I visited a food bank at Saint Columbanus Parish in Chicago. And there, as in so many communities across America, folks pitched in time and resources to give a lift to their neighbors in need. It is this spirit that binds us together as one American family — the belief that we rise and fall as one people; that we want that American Dream not just for ourselves, but for each other.

That’s the spirit we must summon as we make a new beginning for our nation. Times are tough. There are difficult months ahead. But we can renew our nation the same way that we have in the many years since Lincoln’s first Thanksgiving: by coming together to overcome adversity; by reaching for — and working for — new horizons of opportunity for all Americans.

Former President Obama volunteers at a food bank in Chicago, November 2018. (ABC)

The Spanish Flu upends Thanksgiving. (1918)

Across the country, millions of Americans are trying to negotiate how to celebrate Thanksgiving in the midst of a pandemic. Visit family? Stay home? Zoom? Indoors? Outdoors? One hundred and two years ago, the same debates (minus the Zoom) played through people’s minds. Newspapers across the country captured the mood, which was just as conflicting: the Great War had just come to an end, igniting celebrations and euphoria, yet the country had lost about 290,000 Americans to the flu which was in its deadliest wave.

University Argonaut (Moscow, Idaho):

Arrangements were practically complete for Thanksgiving day dinners for S.A.T.C. men in the homes of Moscow citizens but city health officers deemed that going into private homes would possibly start the influenza epidemic again. Churches of the city were planning entertainments on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Hospitable citizens of Moscow had counted an entertaining the soldiers in their home Thursday but the dread of influenza peril stopped all plans.

Deseret Evening News (Salt Lake City, Utah):

Owing to the influenza quarantine, the day’s festivities as at first suggested in proclamations by President Wilson and Governor Bamberger had to be postponed till Christmas day. But Thanksgiving services of some sort are being held in nearly every home. . . . Because the influenza quarantine prevents public gatherings, the day in Utah is being observed quietly and without any spectacular features.

The Omaha World-Herald:

Thanksgiving celebrations should be restricted as far as possible, says a state board of health notice received by City Health Commissioner Manning Wednesday morning. Many celebrations are planned in the city.

“See that Thanksgiving celebrations are restricted as much as possible so as to prevent another flare-up of influenza,” read the notice.

“I take it that this means football games as well as union meetings in churches,” said Dr. Manning. “I hope it will not be necessary to restrain public gatherings as we did, but if a flare-up of the influenza comes, that will be done.”

Rocky Mountain News:

Special pains have been taken to provide all the ventilation necessary and to make attendance at the services safe in spite of the influenza epidemic. In a number of churches electric fans have been placed in the auditoriums so as to change the air every few minutes.

Los Angeles Times:

Among the orphans and the very poor, Thanksgiving held many attractions, although in a modified sense. The Salvation Army served fifty pounds of turkeys to fifty old men, but dispensed with its usual big dinner to the outcasts at the headquarters, because of the influenza ban.

The Park Record (Park City, Utah):

. . . avoid crowds. Wear a mask and report your neighbor if [they] fail to do so. See that your home is well ventilated. Don’t sleep in “stuffy” rooms. Cooperate with the [police and health] officers and don’t be a “grouch.”

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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Noel C. Cilker

Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.

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