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Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims: Just the Facts

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 1 7

Thanksgiving Took Awhile to Catch On

The first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated almost a year after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Nearly half of the group that sailed on the Mayflower died during the difficult winter. Those who survived built eleven homes and four buildings and began growing unfamiliar crops with seeds they were given by the Native Americans.

Experts debate the actual date of this first feast, but most believe it likely took place during the middle of October. The Pilgrims struggled during their second year. They were still getting used to growing corn and other unfamiliar crops from the seeds they received from the Native Americans.  More people arrived from England as well, making food more scarce. By 1623, their third year in the New World, a hot, dry summer caused the crops to begin drying up. A day of fasting and prayer was ordered by Governor Bradford. When the rains came shortly afterward, the Pilgrims celebrated with a day of giving thanks on November 29.

Although this date is considered by many to be the first real Thanksgiving Day, it took more than 200 years to establish an official Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. Although days were often set aside for giving thanks during the Revolutionary War, they were usually meant to commemorate important victories. Towns or colonies occasionally held a celebration for a special reason, such as a successful harvest, but these dates never became regular events.

After the adoption of the Constitution, George Washington proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving on November 26, 1789. President James Madison ordered a day of Thanksgiving for peace after the War of 1812 ended. New York began celebrating Thanksgiving annually in 1817 and other states in the north began doing the same. In the South, Virginia made Thanksgiving Day a state holiday around 1855. However, states still continued to celebrate on different days and there was no national Thanksgiving Day.

The Pilgrims Landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Credit: happyskrappy

One President's Plan to Move Thanksgiving and Extend the Christmas Shopping Season

We likely owe the existence of our national Thanksgiving holiday to Sarah Josepha Hale. As the editor of a popular ladies magazine called, Godey's Lady's Book, Hale began to talk about creating a Thanksgiving holiday for the whole nation. She included Thanksgiving recipes, stories and engravings in the magazine during the fall. She began a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday by writing letters to state governors and the President. Many began to support the idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday. Hale even gave speeches to tell people about her plan. As tensions grew between the North and South, she hoped a national Thanksgiving holiday might bring the country together.

When the Civil War ended in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday of November as the date for a national Thanksgiving holiday. In the United States, Thanksgiving was celebrated on this date for 75 years. However, in an effort to help business owners by extending the holiday shopping season, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the date for Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November.

Roosevelt’s attempt to reschedule Thanksgiving ended up causing confusion. Many people weren’t sure when to celebrate Thanksgiving and continued to hold their celebrations on the last Thursday of the month. It was not until 1941 that Congress declared Thanksgiving Day a federal holiday. Thanksgiving became an official US holiday and the date was once again set on the last Thursday in November. Until 1931, Canada celebrated their national Thanksgiving Day on the same day as the United States. Since that time, Canadians have celebrated Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October, which falls closer to the end of the traditional harvest season and creates an extended holiday weekend.

Vintage Thanksgiving Turkey Postcard

Enjoy Thanksgiving with a Bird of Good Moral Character

There is some dispute as to whether the Pilgrims even ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving. Governor Bradford mentions sighting water fowl and turkeys as winter approached, but never says turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving feast. Others note the Governor sent men fowling to hunt food for the feast, so many assume the Pilgrims ate turkey, duck and goose.

By the second  Thanksgiving, hens and geese were brought from Europe, making it more likely that fowl were on the menu for later feasts. Wild turkeys were also tamed and raised. Most families raised their own chickens and a turkey to be enjoyed on Thanksgiving. President Harry S. Truman began the tradition of pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey, which is then allowed to live to old age on a petting farm in Virginia. Benjamin Franklin even wrote about preferring the turkey over the bald eagle as the national bird. He viewed the bald eagle as a bird of bad moral character and considered the turkey a more respectable bird who was also native to North America.

The Native Americans of Cape Cod introduced the Pilgrims to cranberries. They called them Ibimi or bitter berry. The created a poultice from the berries for wounds caused by poison arrows and used their bright red juice to dye blankets and rugs. They also made pemmican by mixing together dried venison, cranberries and fat. After the mixture was formed into cakes and dried in the sun, pemmican would last a long time, provide a lot of energy and was easy to carry while traveling.

The Pilgrims called the berries "crane berry", which was eventually shortened to cranberry. They created their own recipes using cranberries. They made jam with cranberries and apples which was sweetened with syrup made from pumpkin. Cranberry tarts, cranberry sauce and cranberry nog were also popular.

Cornstalks and pumpkins are often used as traditional decorations during the fall and Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims referred to corn, beans and pumpkins as the "Indian Three Sisters" because they were the primary crops grown by the Native Americans. The seeds the Pilgrims brought with them from England wouldn’t grow in North America, so they began growing the seeds given to them by the Native Americans. While a modern Thanksgiving feast wouldn’t be complete without pumpkin pie, it wasn't something the Pilgrims ate. In England, the Pilgrims drank beer made with barley which they weren't able to grow when they arrived in the New World. Instead, they used pumpkins and parsnips to make a drink similar to beer.

Pilgrim Salt and Pepper Shakers for the Thanksgiving table.

Plymouth Rock Style: Beyond Black and Brown

The Pilgrims themselves are one of the most popular Thanksgiving symbols. Placemats, candles and other Thanksgiving decorations show the Pilgrims dressed in somber black or brown with the men in tall brimmed hats and the women wearing white aprons and caps. Wills made by the Pilgrims included listings of their clothes and other possessions.  While they wore simple clothing, it was often quite colorful and many didn't own any black or brown clothing.

Elder Brewster owned some black clothing. However, his list also included a red cap, green pair of pants and a purple cloak. Some of the men who had been better off in England owned a black suit and maybe a pair of black shoes, which they wore on Sunday. While the Pilgrims are often shown with buckles on their shoes or hats, the wills also don’t mention buckles which would likely have been made of silver or pewter.  Hats were often watch style caps made from wool which the men wore to keep warm.

Girls and women wore brightly colored clothes. Blue, green, purple and red dresses were common, with full skirts that covered their ankles. In cold weather, they wore short, fitted coats that were often red colored. Cloaks with hoods were worn during very cold weather.  They didn't have the time or materials to make white caps, aprons or collars, and keep them clean. Up to the age of six, boys wore something called a coat, which was basically a dress. After that age, children and adults wore the same kinds of clothing.

No one is sure exactly where the idea that the Pilgrims dressed in drab colored clothes came from. However, one of the wills did describe a “sad colored suit and cloak”. To the Pilgrims, sad colors were basically deep red, dark brown or forest green. The Pilgrims only had the clothing they brought with them on their voyage. They had no time to grow flax make linen and had not been able to bring sheep for wool. Their clothing became very threadbare and the women spent a good amount of time patching and repatching their worn clothes.

There really is a Plymouth Rock, although it likely wasn’t used as a convenient stepping stone for the Pilgrims to exit the Mayflower and set foot on the shores of the New World. Just before the Revolutionary War, a granite boulder near the shore was moved and displayed in the Plymouth Town Square. It was later returned to the waterfront. In 1920, during the 300th Anniversary of the town, Plymouth Rock was placed in a pit, surrounded by an iron railing. This was to prevent people from chipping off bits to save as a souvenir.

The Pilgrims faced incredible odds to reach the United States and begin creating their ideal world. After nearly a year, they celebrated their survival with a special meal. Today, people all over the United States continue to celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November. Many things have changed since that first Thankgiving celebration. Yet, people still take the time to count their blessings and be thankful, while enjoying some of the same foods the Pilgrims enjoyed on that first Thanksgiving.

Sunrise on the Mayflower
Credit: joiseyshowaa


Oct 25, 2011 9:54pm
Highly informative post. The celebration of Thanksgiving is one tradition that I deeply wish that other countries like ours would follow, too. In the Philippines there's no special day dedicated to giving thanks, unfortunately.
Oct 27, 2011 11:59pm
Athena- Thank you for visiting. It is nice that in the US we have a day when the entire country gathers together with family simply to be thankful. It is one of my favorite holidays. It would be interesting to learn more about the different holidays other countries have. I imagine you might celebrate special days in the Philippines that we don't.
Nov 23, 2011 5:44am
Very interesting, its nice to have a day of thanks. We do not have that in Australia
Nov 23, 2011 7:19am
Congrats on the front page article! There is a lot of interesting information here!
Nov 23, 2011 10:44am
Wow, lots of great and interesting information here. Thanks for doing some great research!
Nov 23, 2011 4:23pm
Congrats on your featured article. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday too!
Nov 30, 2011 11:00am
Thanks for stopping by everybody. This was my first featured article on InfoBarrel, which was pretty exciting. I enjoyed writing this article to learn more about the history of my favorite holiday. I am glad you all enjoyed it as well.
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