To look at the history of Thanksgiving - you need to go back a year to when the "Saints" and "Strangers" sailed from Holland and arrived in the New World in 1620. The "Saints" (they didn't adopt the name 'Pilgrim' until the Mayflower Compact was signed) were the group known to us as the Pilgrims. mayflower They left England because of religious troubles and went to Holland, but many felt that the Dutch were too frivolous and basically a bad influence on the children, so they decided to sail to the New World. They left Holland on September 6, 1620 with a group of 44 "Saints" and 66 "Strangers" - the others on board the Mayflower.

The journey took 65 days - during which many became sick, but only one person died. Land was sighted in November and the "Saints" and "Strangers" met and signed an agreement, the Mayflower Compact, which guaranteed equality and brought the Saints and Strangers together - renaming themselves "Pilgrims".



squantoThe Pilgrims were wary of their Native American neighbors, but soon found the Patuxets were a friendly people. The newcomers constructed homes but that first winter was tough for the Pilgrims and by spring less than half of those who landed at Plymouth the November before were still alive.

The spring of 1621 saw the arrival in the Pilgrim village of 2 Indian braves - Samoset and Squanto - both of whom had spent time in England. The two helped the Pilgrims to build homes and plant crops that would grow in the rocky soil of New England. Squanto spoke better English and without his help, the Pilgrims might not have survived a second winter in the New World.

Library of Congress collection
Ferris, Jean Louis Gerome 1863-1930, artist

The Pilgrims, with Squanto's help, had a bountiful harvest in the autumn of 1621. There was enough food to store away for the winter months - fruits, vegetables, fish, meats and fowl. With their bounty, they decided to celebrate the harvest and Pilgrim Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving, which would be shared by the Pilgrims and their Native American friends.

That feast lasted for 3 days - and fed the 50 or so Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans. During this feast, Chief, Massasoit and Miles Standish of the Pilgrims, signed an agreement of peace and friendship and turned over the site of a former Patuxet village to the Pilgrims for their town of Plymouth.

Massasoit's Treaty with the Pilgrims
Library of Congress engraving

As there are no written legacies to the actual event, we can only assume from historical knowledge of the region what the Pilgrims may have eaten at that first feast. Besides turkey, which is native to the area, there was probably also ducks, geese, and swans. There was also venison, pumpkin of some sort and other vegetables and plenty more. This was the only Thanksgiving feast. That harvest feast with the Native Americans was a one-time deal and never repeated.

Who attended the first Thanksgiving

Unfortunately, the relationship between the Native Americans and Pilgrims deteriorated as more English people arrived in the New World - people who didn't trust the Native Americans and were intolerant of their religion and customs. Within only a few years the English and the Native Americans were killing each other in what is known as King Phillip's War.


Through the years after 1621 a harvest feast was often held, but during the Revolutionary War a national day of Thanksgiving was suggested to the Continental Congress.

New York state adopted an annual Thanksgiving Day in 1817 and by the middle of the 19th century many other states had also adopted a haleThanksgiving Day. One of the driving forces behind a nationally recognized day of thanksgiving was Sarah Josepha Hale. Hale was the editor of the Ladies' Magazine and Godey's Lady's Book and had the attention of women around the country. She worked for years promoting the idea of a national day of Thanksgiving. Eventually President Abraham Lincoln made the official proclamation.

A national day of Thanksgiving was adopted by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and for the next 75 years each president formally proclaimed that Thanksgiving Day would be recognized on the last Thursday of November. However in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the date to a week earlier and in 1941 Congress ruled that Thanksgiving Day would be observed on the fourth Thursday of November and would also be a legal federal holiday.



There are many symbols of Thanksgiving. Most people think first of turkey! Most of our holidays are centered around food of some sort.

turkey If Benjamin Franklin had had his way, our main course for Thanksgiving dinner could have been something else all together as he campaigned heavily to have the turkey made our country's national bird - rather than the Bald Eagle. The turkey is native to North America and was used as a food source by Native Americans. Now, as for Tom Turkey - that's just a male turkey - not a turkey with a special name! Females are called hens.

corn More food! Corn was the staple of the Native Americans - and one of the crops that Squanto taught the Pilgrims to grow. (Corn was unheard of by Europeans at that time) Corn comes in many colors - besides yellow and white, there is also blue & red. Native Americans used the entire corn plant. The kernel was the food - from everything from corn, to hominy to meal. The cob was used for fuel, weapons and rattles and the husks for everything from clothing & material to toys.

doll The legend of the corn husk doll is told here by a Seneca craftswoman, known as Mrs. Snow.

"Many, many years ago, the corn, one of the Three Sisters, wanted to make something different. She made the moccasin and the salt boxes, the mats, and the face. She wanted to do something different so the Great Spirit gave her permission.

So she made the little people out of corn husk and they were to roam the earth so that they would bring brotherhood and contentment to the Iroquois tribe. But she made one that was very, very beautiful. This beautiful corn person, you might call her, went into the woods and saw herself in a pool.

She saw how beautiful she was and she became very vain and naughty. That began to make the people very unhappy so the Great Spirit decided that wasn't what she was to do. She didn't pay attention to his warning, so the last time the messenger came and told her that she was going to have her punishment.

Her punishment would be that she'd have no face, she would not converse with the Senecas or the birds or the animals. She'd roam the earth forever, looking for something to do to gain her face back again. So that's why we don't put any face on the husk dolls."

From: Our Mother Corn - Mather/Fernandes/Brescia (1981)

rock This is the spot where the Pilgrims landed in the New World. Legend says that a group of explorers from the Mayflower stepped ashore on the rock as they landed.

The rock itself is granite with the year 1620 carved into it. It has been moved many times through the years, but today sits under a canopy near the water's edge in Plymouth as a memorial to the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620.

horn Also called the Horn of Plenty symbolizes nature's productivity. The Greeks believe it to be one of the horns of Amalthaea - the goat that nursed Zeus. The horn produced ambrosia and nectar - the food and drink of the gods. The Romans on the other hand, say the horn was broken off of the river god Achelou who, in the form of a bull, was fighting Hercules . Water nymphs filled the horn with flowers and fruit and offered it to Copia - the goddess of plenty.


The first Thanksgiving was centered around a feast and today that has not changed. That feast, however, can vary in the foods that are served, although in most cases, the main course is turkey. Check out these recipes for the holiday - you might just find a new family favorite!

Thanksgiving Recipes


Thanksgiving - besides food - for most means parades and football! There are parades and then there's the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - which ushers in the start of the Holiday Season. Made famous in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street", Santa always arrives at the end of the parade to remind everyone that Christmas is only a month away - and of course, the day after Thanksgiving - 'Black Friday' - is the first and biggest shopping day of the holiday season.

There are other things happening on Thanksgiving, which is also the biggest travel day on our nation's roadways.  Here in Sussex County, Delaware there are two Thanksgiving Day Walk/Runs. 

 and, of course, football to watch while you digest your meal.


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Reference material from:
The First Thanksgiving
Plymouth Thanksgiving Story
Thanksgiving on the Net

Pilgrim Hall Museum


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