THANKSGIVING HISTORY

Throughout the United States Thanksgiving Day is an annual legal holiday. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving was originally a harvest festival, one of the oldest and most widespread of celebrations.

The American holiday commemorates a harvest celebration held by the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony in 1621. The Pilgrims had come ashore from the Mayflower on Dec. 21, 1620. The winter had been harsh. Only about half the original group had survived. Fortunately the harvest was plentiful. There were 20 acres of the Indian corn, for which the Indians had furnished seeds. There were also barley and plenty of meat. Governor William Bradford sent four men to hunt for fowl. They returned with enough waterfowl and wild turkeys to last a week. Fishermen brought in cod and bass. Indian hunters contributed five deer. Ninety Indians, with their chief, Massasoit, feasted with the colonists for three days, but the date of the feast is not known. Bradford wrote in his history 'Of Plimoth Plantation' that on September 18 some men set out in a small boat for Massachusetts Bay to trade with the Indians. The harvest was gathered after they returned so the feast must have occurred before December 11. It was described in a letter written on that date by Edward Winslow. There is also no record that the feast was called a "thanksgiving." Appointing certain days for giving special thanks was a custom of the Puritans, but the first record of such a day was two years later in 1623. Then the Pilgrims "set apart a day of thanksgiving" for rain that ended a terrible drought. Thanksgiving days following harvests later came to be celebrated throughout the New England Colonies but on different and varying dates. Later the custom was kept alive by proclamations of state governors.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of a popular woman's magazine called Godey's Lady's Book, believed that Thanksgiving should be a national patriotic holiday. She began her campaign in 1846. Year after year she wrote editorials and sent letters to the president, to state governors, and to other influential people. For the date she chose the last Thursday in November because on the last Thursday of that month in 1789 (November 26) George Washington had proclaimed a National Thanksgiving Day in honor of the new United States Constitution. Finally Sarah Hale won the support of President Abraham Lincoln. On Oct. 3, 1863, during the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26. He also named the last Thursday in November as the day to be observed every year. Lincoln and every president who followed him proclaimed the holiday each year. The date chosen, with few exceptions, was the last Thursday in November. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that Thanksgiving fell too close to Christmas. In 1939 he proclaimed the third Thursday Thanksgiving Day. Not all of the states complied, however. In December 1941 a joint resolution of Congress specified the fourth Thursday in November, which is not always the last Thursday, as Thanksgiving Day.

Return to Wesley Lowe's Thanksgiving Webpage.