One hundred and two pilgrims set sail from Europe on the Mayflower, Sept 6, 1620, heading for a new land where they hoped to find religious freedom. Perhaps they dreamt of a land "flowing with milk and honey." Instead they found a land uncivilized, harsh and bitter cold. The pilgrims did not come to this new land prepared for such a brutal winter. Adequate shelter would need to be built, and they had not brought enough food onboard the ship to last until spring. Being unprepared for such extreme conditions left nearly half of those 102 men, women and children dead that winter.

However, spring brought with it new hope and determination. Those that survived made peace with the neighboring Native American tribe, the Wampanoag, among whom Squanto lived. Squanto had been exposed to the "white man" some years earlier when one of John Smith’s men kidnapped him (along with other natives) and attempted to sell him as a slave in Europe. Squanto was rescued by local friars who taught him Christianity and the English language. He was able to make it back to his homeland in 1618. He and the Wampanoag tribe are credited with teaching the pilgrims to farm and hunt this new land.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth
Credit: Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914) via Wikipedia

Thanks to the techniques learned from the natives, the pilgrims enjoyed a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621. On December 13th of that year, the pilgrims declared a three-day festival to celebrate the bountiful harvest and to give thanks to God for providing it. They shared vegetables and fruits along with game fowl and deer. Although this was not the first time of giving thanks in the new colonies (Virginia had celebrated as early as 1607), this is the time that is remembered as the first Thanksgiving in America.

George Washington declared the first official Day of Thanksgiving to God in 1789, with most celebrations taking place only at the state or local level. The holiday did not catch on nationally until 1863, when at the urging of Mrs. Sarah Joseph Hale, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day. Mrs. Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most popular ladies’ magazine of the 1800s. She had worked diligently and tirelessly for thirty years urging president after president to consider a national holiday for giving thanks.

We should all be thankful to Mrs. Hale for her efforts that afford us the holiday we so enjoy today. We celebrate with turkey, pumpkin pie, family, friends and football because of the determination of both the pilgrims and Mrs. Sarah Joseph Hale.