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The Story of Thanksgiving

The Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England on September 1620 with 102 passengers on board. The varied passengers, now commonly known as the Pilgrims, left England bound for the New World seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith and enjoy the prosperity of land ownership that was promised there. They landed near Cape Cod after a grueling 66 day journey across the Atlantic. One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay where the work of establishing a colony called Plymouth began.

The first winter spent in the New World was almost unbearable. Many decided to stay on-board the Mayflower through the winter where they faced exposure to the cold, scurvy and disease. Only half of the original crew and passengers of the Mayflower survived the winter. The remaining colonists moved ashore in March where they encountered an Abenaki Indian who greeted them in English. Several days later the Indian returned with a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, named Squanto. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to extract sap from maple trees, grow corn, catch fish in the rivers and showed them what poisonous plants to avoid. One of the sole examples of harmony that existed between the New World settlers and the Native American tribes already here, is the alliance Squanto helped forge between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. This alliance lasted for more than 50 years.

In November of 1621, the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest was successful. A celebratory feast was organized by then Governor William Bradford, where a few of the colony’s Native American allies were invited to attend. Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe, attended the feast, which lasted for 3 days. Interestingly, there was no oven available, nor was there any sugar for the preparation of pies and other desserts so commonly served in contemporary Thanksgiving meals.

In 1789 the first Thanksgiving proclamation was issued by George Washington to give thanks for the ending of the war of independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In 1827, writer and magazine editor Sarah Joseph Hale launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as an official holiday. For 36 years she worked tirelessly to achieve this goal through the writing of various editorials and letters sent to many government officials. At the height of the Civil War in 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation in which he asked that all Americans ask God to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife” and to “heal the wounds of the nation.” He set the official Thanksgiving holiday for the final Thursday in November, on which it was celebrated every year until Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved it up a week in 1939 to encourage more retail sales during the Great Depression. This provoked much heated opposition, and the celebration became known as ‘Franksgiving.’ In 1941 the president signed a bill moving the holiday to the fourth Thursday of November.

Source: “Thanksgiving at Plymouth” website accessed November 27, 2013.


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