The Pilgrims were planning to
settle near Virginia. They were part of the Virginia Company,
which had the rights to most of the eastern seaboard of
the U.S. The pilgrims had intended to go to the Hudson River
region in New York State, which would have been considered
"Northern Virginia," but they landed in Cape Cod instead.
Treacherous seas prevented them from venturing further south
The Pilgrims set ground at Plymouth
Rock on December 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating.
At the beginning of the following fall, they had lost 46
of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. But the
harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. And the remaining colonists
decided to celebrate with a feast -- including 91 Indians
who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. It
is believed that the Pilgrims would not have made it through
the year without the help of the natives.
The feast was more of a traditional
English harvest festival than a true "thanksgiving" observance.
It lasted three days. The original feast in 1621 occurred
sometime between September 21 and November 11.
This feast was not repeated
the following year. But in 1623, during a severe drought,
the pilgrims gathered in a prayer service, praying for rain.
When a long, steady rain followed the very next day, Governor
Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving, again inviting
their Indian friends.
On June 20, 1676, the governing
council of Charlestown, Massachusetts, held a meeting to
determine how best to express thanks for the good fortune
that had seen their community securely established. By unanimous
vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim
June 29 as a day of thanksgiving.
October 1777 marked the first
time that all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration.
It also commemorated the patriotic victory over the British
at Saratoga. But it was a one-time affair.
George Washington proclaimed
a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were
opposed to it. There was discord among
the colonies, many feeling the hardships of a few Pilgrims
did not warrant a national holiday. And later, President
Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea of having a day of
Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine
editor, wrote many editorials championing her cause in her
Boston Ladies' Magazine, and later, in Godey's Lady's Book.
Some think her efforts eventually led to what we recognize
as Thanksgiving as she ran a 40-year campaign of writing
letters to governors and presidents. After the Civil
War, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln designated the last
Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
This may have correlated it with the November 21, 1621,
anchoring of the Mayflower.
Thanksgiving was proclaimed
by every president after Lincoln. The date was changed a
couple of times, most recently by Franklin
D. Roosevelt, who set it up one week to the next-to-last
Thursday in order to create a longer
Christmas shopping season. Public uproar against this decision
caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original
date two years later. And in 1941, Thanksgiving was finally
sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday, as the fourth
Thursday in November.
Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation
Whereas it is the duty of all
nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to
obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly
to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses
of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me
to "recommend to the people of the United States a day of
public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging
with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty
God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably
to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"
Now, therefore, I do recommend
and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be
devoted by the people of these States to the service of
that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author
of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that
we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere
and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the
people of this country previous to their becoming a nation;
for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions
of His rovidence in the course and conclusion of the late
war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty
which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational
manner in which we have been enable to establish constitutions
of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly
the national one now lately instituted for the civil and
religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means
we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and,
in general, for all the great and various favors which He
has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite
in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to
the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon
our national and other transgressions; to enable us all,
whether in public or private stations, to perform our several
and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our
National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly
being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws,
discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect
and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as
have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good
governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge
and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase
science among them and us; and,
generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal
prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand, at the
city of New York, 3d day of October, A.D. 1789.
NOTE: After the Thanksgiving
Proclamation was written, it was lost for 130 years. The
original document was written in long hand by William Jackson,
secretary to the President, and was then signed by George
Washington. The original manuscript was not placed in the
National Archives until 1921 when Dr. J. C. Fitzpatrick,
assistant chief of the manuscripts division of the Library
of Congress found the proclamation at an auction sale being
held at an art gallery in New York. Dr Fitzpatrick purchased
the document for 300.00 for the Library of Congress, in
which it now resides. It was the first official presidential
proclamation issued in the United States.
The year that is drawing towards
its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful
fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are
so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source
from which they come, others have been added, which are
of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate
and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible
to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the
midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity,
which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and
to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with
all nations, order has been trained, the laws have been
respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere
except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre
has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and
navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth
and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to
the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the
shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of
settlements, and the mines,
as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have
yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population
has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has
been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and
the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented
strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of
years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath
devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great
things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God,
who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins,hath nevertheless
It has seemed to me fit and
proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully
acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole
American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens
in every part of the United States, and also those who are
at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to
set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next,
as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father
who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that
while offering up the
ascriptions justly due to Him
for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also,
with humble penitence for our national perverseness and
disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have
become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable
civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently
implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the
wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be
consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment
of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have
hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States
to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington,
this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand
eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of
the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham
Secretary of State:
William H. Seward
"Thanksgiving is an invented
tradition. It is based on the New England puritan Thanksgiving,
which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest
celebrations of England and New England and maybe other
ideas like commemorating the pilgrims. All of these have
been gathered together and transformed into
something different from the original parts."
James W. Baker, Senior Historian
at Plymouth Plantation
When the Pilgrims crossed the
Atlantic Ocean in 1620, they landed on the rocky shores
of a territory that was inhabited by the Wampanoag (Wam
pa NO ag) Indians. The Wampanoags were part of the Algonkian-speaking
peoples, a large group that was part of the Woodland Culture
area. These Indians lived in villages along the coast of
what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They lived in
round- roofed houses called wigwams. These were made of
poles covered with flat sheets of elm or birch bark. Wigwams
differ in construction from tipis that were used by Indians
of the Great Plains.
The Wampanoags moved several
times during each year in order to get food. In the spring
they would fish in the rivers for salmon and herring. In
the planting season they moved to the forest to hunt deer
and other animals. After the end of the hunting season people
moved inland where there was greater protection from the
weather. From December to April they lived on food that
they stored during the earlier months.
The basic dress for men was
the breech clout, a length of deerskin looped over a belt
in back and in front. Women wore deerskin wrap-around skirts.
Deerskin leggings and fur capes made from deer, beaver,
otter, and bear skins gave protection during the colder
seasons, and deerskin moccasins were worn on the feet. Both
men and women usually braided their hair and a single feather
was often worn in the back of the hair by men. They did
not have the large feathered headdresses worn by people
in the Plains Culture area.
There were two language groups
of Indians in New England at this time. The Iroquois were
neighbors to the Algonkian-speaking people. Leaders of the
Algonquin and Iroquois people were called "sachems" (SAY
chems). Each village had its own sachem and tribal council.
Political power flowed upward from the people. Any individual,
man or woman, could participate, but among the Algonquins
more political power was held by men. Among the Iroquois,
however, women held the deciding vote in the final selection
of who would represent the group. Both men and women enforced
the laws of the village and helped solve problems. The details
of their democratic system were so impressive that about
150 years later Benjamin Franklin invited the Iroquois to
Albany, New York, to explain their system to a delegation
who then developed the "Albany Plan of Union." This document
later served as a model for the Articles of Confederation
and the Constitution of the United States.
These Indians of the Eastern
Woodlands called the turtle, the deer and the fish their
brothers. They respected the forest and everything in it
as equals. Whenever a hunter made a kill, he was careful
to leave behind some bones or meat as a spiritual offering,
to help other animals survive. Not to do so would be considered
greedy. The Wampanoags also treated each other with respect.
Any visitor to a Wampanoag home was provided with a share
of whatever food the family had, even if the supply was
low. This same courtesy was extended to the Pilgrims when
We can only guess what the Wampanoags
must have thought when they first saw the strange ships
of the Pilgrims arriving on their shores. But their custom
was to help visitors, and they treated the newcomers with
courtesy. It was mainly because of their kindness that the
Pilgrims survived at all. The wheat the Pilgrims had brought
with them to plant would not grow in the rocky soil. They
needed to learn new ways for a new world, and the man who
came to help them was called "Tisquantum" or "Squanto" (SKWAN
Squanto was originally from
the village of Patuxet (Pa TUK et) and a member of the Pokanokit
Wampanoag nation. Patuxet once stood on the exact site where
the Pilgrims built Plymouth. In 1605, fifteen years before
the Pilgrims came, Squanto went to England with a friendly
English explorer named John Weymouth. He had many adventures
and learned to speak English. Squanto came back to New England
with Captain Weymouth. Later Squanto was captured by a British
slaver who raided the village and sold Squanto to the Spanish
in the Caribbean Islands. A Spanish Franciscan priest befriended
Squanto and helped him to get to Spain and later on a ship
to England. Squanto then found Captain Weymouth, who paid
his way back to his homeland. In England Squanto met Samoset
of the Wabanake (Wab NAH key) Tribe, who had also left his
native home with an English explorer. They both returned
together to Patuxet in 1620.
When they arrived, the village
was deserted and there were skeletons everywhere. Everyone
in the village had died from an illness the English slavers
had left behind. Squanto and Samoset went to stay with a
neighboring village of Wampanoags.
One year later, in the spring,
Squanto and Samoset were hunting along the beach near Patuxet.
They were startled to see people from England in their deserted
village. For several days, they stayed nearby observing
the newcomers. Finally they decided to approach them. Samoset
walked into the village and said "welcome," Squanto soon
joined him. The Pilgrims were very surprised to meet two
Indians who spoke English.
The Pilgrims were not in good
condition. They were living in dirt-covered shelters, there
was a shortage of food, and nearly half of them had died
during the winter. They obviously needed help and the two
men were a welcome sight. Squanto, who probably knew more
English than any other Indian in North America at that time,
decided to stay with the Pilgrims for the next few months
and teach them how to survive in this new place. He brought
them deer meat and beaver skins. He taught them how to cultivate
corn and other new vegetables and how to build Indian-style
houses. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other
plants could be used as medicine. He explained how to dig
and cook clams, how to get sap from the maple trees, use
fish for fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for
By the time fall arrived things
were going much better for the Pilgrims, thanks to the help
they had received. The corn they planted had grown well.
There was enough food to last the winter. They were living
comfortably in their Indian-style wigwams and had also managed
to build one European-style building out of squared logs.
This was their church. They were now in better health, and
they knew more about surviving in this new land. The Pilgrims
decided to have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate their
good fortune. They had observed thanksgiving feasts in November
as religious obligations in England for many years before
coming to the New World.
The Algonkian tribes held six
thanksgiving festivals during the year. The beginning of
the Algonkian year was marked by the Maple Dance which gave
thanks to the Creator for the maple tree and its syrup.
This ceremony occurred when the weather was warm enough
for the sap to run in the maple
trees, sometimes as early as
February. Second was the planting feast, where the seeds
were blessed. The strawberry festival was next, celebrating
the first fruits of the season. Summer brought the green
corn festival to give thanks for the ripening corn. In late
fall, the harvest festival gave thanks for
the food they had grown. Mid-winter
was the last ceremony of the old year. When the Indians
sat down to the "first Thanksgiving" with the Pilgrims,
it was really the fifth thanksgiving of the year for them!
Captain Miles Standish, the
leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit
(the leader of the Wampanoags), and their immediate families
to join them for a celebration, but they had no idea how
big Indian families could be. As the Thanksgiving feast
began, the Pilgrims were overwhelmed at the large turnout
of ninety relatives that Squanto and Samoset brought with
them. The Pilgrims were not prepared to feed a gathering
of people that large for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit
gave orders to his men within the first hour of his arrival
to go home and get more food. Thus it happened that the
Indians supplied the majority of the food: Five deer, many
wild turkeys, fish, beans, squash, corn soup, corn bread,
berries. Captain Standish sat
at one end of a long table and the Clan Chief Massasoit
sat at the other end. For the first time the Wampanoag people
were sitting at a table to eat instead of on mats or furs
spread on the ground. The Indian women sat together with
the Indian men to eat. The Pilgrim women, however, stood
quietly behind the table and waited until after their men
had eaten, since that was their custom.
For three days the Wampanoags
feasted with the Pilgrims. It was a special time of friendship
between two very different groups of people. A peace and
friendship agreement was made between Massasoit and Miles
Standish giving the Pilgrims the clearing in the forest
where the old Patuxet village once stood to build their
new town of Plymouth.
More English people came to
America, and they were not in need of help from the Indians
as were the original Pilgrims. Many of the newcomers forgot
the help the Indians had given them.
Mistrust started to grow and
the friendship weakened. The Pilgrims started telling their
Indian neighbors that their Indian religion and Indian customs
were wrong. The Pilgrims displayed an intolerance toward
the Indian religion similar to the intolerance displayed
toward the less popular religions in Europe. The relationship
deteriorated and within a few years the children of the
people who ate together at the first Thanksgiving were killing
one another in what came to be called King Phillip's War.
It is important to understand
all of the story and not just the happy part. Today the
town of Plymouth Rock has a Thanksgiving ceremony each year
in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving. There are still
Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts. In 1970, they
asked one of them to speak at the ceremony to mark the 350th
anniversary of the Pilgrim's arrival. Here is part of what
"Today is a time of celebrating
for you -- a time of looking back to the first days of white
people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for
me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what
happened to my People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the
Wampanoags, welcomed them with
open arms, little knowing that
it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were
to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That
we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed
by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from
them. Let us always remember, the
Indian is and was just as human
as the white people.
Although our way of life is
almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of
Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But
today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America
where people and nature once again are important."
The Thanksgiving Meal
In 1621 the Plymouth colonists
and the Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast
which is now known as the first Thanksgiving. While cooking
methods and table etiquette have changed as the holiday
has evolved, the meal is still consumed today with the same
spirit of celebration and overindulgence.
What foods topped the table
at the first harvest feast? Historians aren't completely
certain about the full bounty, but it's safe to say the
pilgrims weren't gobbling up pumpkin pie or potatoes. Following
is a list of the foods that were available to the colonists
at the time of the 1621 feast:
SEAFOOD: Cod, Eel, Clams, and
WILD FOWL: Wild Turkey, Goose,
Duck, Crane, Swan, Partridge, and Eagles
MEAT: Venison, and Seal
GRAIN: Wheat Flour, Indian Corn
VEGETABLES: Pumpkin, Peas, Beans,
Onions, Lettuce, Radishes, and Carrots
FRUIT: Plums, and Grapes
NUTS: Walnuts, Chestnuts, and
SEASONINGS: Olive Oil, Liverwort,
Leeks, Dried Currants, and Parsnips
Governor William Bradford sent
"four men fowling" after wild ducks and geese. "Our harvest
being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling,
that so we might after a special manner rejoice together
after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four
in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside,
served the company almost a week". It is not certain that
wild turkey was part of their feast. However, it is certain
that they had venison. The term "turkey" was used by the
Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl.
It is unlikely that the first
feast included that treat. The supply of flour had been
long diminished, so there was no bread or pastries of any
kind. However, they did eat boiled pumpkin, and they produced
a type of fried bread from their corn crop.
Corn was the main food and was
eaten at every meal. There were many varieties of corn --
white, blue, yellow and red. Some of the corn was dried
to preserve and keep it for food throughout the winter months.
Dried corn could be made into a food called hominy. Corn
was often ground into corn meal, using wooden mortars and
pestles. The mortars were made of short logs which were
turned upright and hollowed out on the top end. The corn
was put in the hollow part and ground by pounding up and
down with a long piece of wood which was rounded on both
ends. This was called a pestle. Dessert was made by boiling
corn meal with maple syrup.
All parts of the corn plant
were used. Nothing was thrown away. The husks were braided
and woven to make masks, moccasins, sleeping mats, baskets,
and cornhusk dolls. Corncobs were used for fuel, to make
darts for a game, and were tied onto a stick to make a rattle
for ceremonies. Corn was unknown to the Europeans before
they met the Indians. Indians gave them the seeds and taught
them how to grow it. Today in the U.S.A., farm land is used
to grow 60 million acres of corn.
There was also no milk, cider,
potatoes, or butter. There was no domestic cattle for dairy
products, and the newly-discovered
potato was still considered by many Europeans to be poisonous.
But the feast did include fish, berries, watercress, lobster,
dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums.
The pilgrims didn't use forks;
they ate with spoons, knives, and their fingers. They wiped
their hands on large cloth napkins, which they also used
to pick up hot morsels of food. Salt would have been on
the table at the harvest feast, and people would have sprinkled
it on their food. Pepper, however, was something that they
used for cooking but wasn't available on the table.
The pilgrims used many spices,
like: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit,
in sauces for meats. In the seventeenth century, cooks did
not use proportions (teaspoons, etc.), they just improvised.
The best way to cook things in the seventeenth century was
to roast them. Someone was assigned to sit for hours at
a time and turn the spit to make sure the meat was evenly
done. Since the pilgrims and Indians had no refrigeration
in the seventeenth century, they tended to dry a lot of
their foods to preserve them. They dried Indian corn, hams,
Manners and Customs
In the seventeenth century,
a person's social standing determined what he or she ate.
The best food was placed next to the most important people.
People didn't tend to sample everything that was on the
table (as we do today), they just ate
what was closest to them.
Serving in the seventeenth century
was very different from serving today. People were not served
their meals individually. Foods were served onto the table
and then people took the food from the table and ate it.
All the servers had to do was move the food from the place
where it was cooked onto the table. Pilgrims didn't eat
in courses as we do today. All of the different types of
foods were placed on the table at the same time and people
ate in any order they chose.
The biggest meal of the day
for the colonists was eaten at noon and it was called noonmeat
or dinner. The housewives would spend
part of their morning cooking that meal. Supper was a smaller
meal that they had at the end of the day. Breakfast tended
to be leftovers from the previous day's noonmeat. In a pilgrim
household, the adults sat down to eat and the children and
servants waited on them.
The Wampanoag Indians tended
to eat when they were hungry and to have pots cooking throughout
Buckles did not come into fashion
until later in the seventeenth century and black and white
were commonly worn only on Sunday and formal occasions.
Women typically dressed in red, earthy green, brown, blue,
violet, and gray, while men wore clothing in white, beige,
black, earthy green, and brown.
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