: “The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great

The American Tradition of Thanksgiving: A Harvest Festival with Roots in the Old World

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As the leaves turn beautiful golden and fiery red hues, and the weather gets colder and people prepare for the oncoming winter in the Northern Hemisphere, Americans enjoy the annual celebration of Thanksgiving. It is a time to be with family and friends, to remember the history of the country’s founders hundreds of years ago, and to be grateful for all they have. In effect, it is a time to count blessings and enjoy the bounty of the year – with a very large focus on traditional foods such as roasted turkey and seasonal vegetables.

Now observed on the fourth Thursday in November annually, the history of Thanksgiving is taught to American children. For some families it is the biggest celebration of the year, and the start of the holiday season, including Christmas and the New Year.

The holiday is considered a vital part of American history and identity.

The Settlers on the Mayflower

The traditional story recounts the hardships suffered and celebrations had by the original colonists (known also as Pilgrims) when they first came to North America from Europe. It is sparsely documented, but Thanksgiving Day is thought to be traced to an occasion at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, where religious refugees from England shared a feast with the local Native Americans.

The small ship Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England in 1620 filled with religious separatists seeking a new home to practice their faith, as well as enterprising people looking to start a new life of land ownership and prosperity. After an arduous 66-day journey, they landed and established a village named Plymouth in Massachusetts.

"The Landing of the Pilgrims" (1877)

"The Landing of the Pilgrims" (1877) ( Public Domain )

The North American winter was especially hard for the newcomers, and their harvests largely failed, resulting in half of the original 102 passengers dying of exposure, starvation, scurvy, and disease.

The Native Americans are said to have surprised the Pilgrims by greeting them in English. A member of the tribe, Squanto, had been previously kidnapped by an Englishman and learned the language during his captivity. Squanto, a Wampanoag, and members of the Abenaki and Pawtuxet tribes assisted the Pilgrims in learning how to survive in the New World by cultivating indigenous plants, extracting sap from maple trees, catching fish and more. Alliances were forged between the Pilgrims and local tribes, creating a 50-year example of peace between colonists and Native Americans.

First Thanksgiving

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914).

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914). ( Public Domain )

A year later in 1621 the colonists were successful in their harvest, and had a bounty of corn (or maize). It is said Governor William Bradford invited Native American friends and allies to a celebratory feast, now considered the “First Thanksgiving” which lasted for three days.

Perhaps surprising to Americans now who celebrate with turkey, potatoes and seasonal vegetables such as beans, corn, squash, and cranberries, followed by desserts of pumpkin pie and cake, the First Thanksgiving is believed by historians to have had a very different menu of spiced dishes prepared in a traditional Native American style, with game including: venison, wild ducks and swans and potentially cod, shellfish, eel and even lobster.

Wild turkey. The bird most associated with American Thanksgiving, which becomes the roast and centerpiece of the meal. It has become custom that the President of the USA annually spares a turkey’s life by ‘pardoning’ the bird.

Wild turkey. The bird most associated with American Thanksgiving, which becomes the roast and centerpiece of the meal. It has become custom that the President of the USA annually spares a turkey’s life by ‘pardoning’ the bird. (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

Divisive History

Not all scholars or Native American groups agree with the complete popularized history of the First Thanksgiving, however. It is still debated whether the celebration at Plymouth was really the first. Historians point to other ceremonies by European settlers which predate the 1621 event.

Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé in St. Augustine, Florida is said to have invited members of the Timucua tribe to feast and hold a mass thanking god in 1565. Additionally, when British settlers reached Berkeley Hundred on Virginia’s James River, they proclaimed the date, December 4, 1619, as a “day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Some Native American groups feel the American Thanksgiving narrative “paints a deceptively sunny portrait of relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, masking the long and bloody history of conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that resulted in the deaths of millions.” As such, it is commemorated by protestors as a “National Day of Mourning” since 1970.  

Diorama showing Native Americans meeting with European settlers.

Diorama showing Native Americans meeting with European settlers. (Flickr/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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