The event that Americans commonly call the “First Thanksgiving” was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in October 1621. This feast lasted three days, and—as told by attendee Edward Winslow—it was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. The New England colonists were accustomed to regularly celebrating “thanksgivings”— days of prayer thanking God for blessings such as military victory or the end of a drought.
Virginia Thanksgiving, 1619
However, the arrival in 1619 of 38 English settlers at Berkeley Hundred Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia, concluded with a religious celebration as dictated by the group’s charter from the London Company, which specifically required “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Berkeley Hundred was a land grant in 1618 of the Virginia Company of London to Sir William Throckmorton, Sir George Yeardley, George Thorpe, Richard Berkeley, and John Smyth (1567–1641) of Nibley. Smyth was also the historian of the Berkeley group, collecting over 60 documents relating to the settlement of Virginia between 1613 and 1634 which have survived to modern times.
In 1619, the ship Margaret of Bristol, England sailed for Virginia under Captain John Woodliffe and brought thirty-eight settlers to the new Town and Hundred of Berkeley. The London Company proprietors instructed the settlers that “the day of our ships arrival . . . shall be yearly and perpetually kept as a day of Thanksgiving.” The Margaret landed her passengers at Berkeley Hundred on December 4, 1619. The settlers did indeed celebrate a day of “Thanksgiving,” establishing the tradition two years and 17 days before the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower at Plymouth to establish their Thanksgiving Day in 1621.
Thanksgiving at Plymouth
Several days of Thanksgiving were held in early New England history that have been identified as the “First Thanksgiving,” including Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and a Puritan holiday in Boston in 1631. According to historian Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, “the Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of Thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden.” Now called Oktober Feesten (October Festival), Leiden’s autumn thanksgiving celebration in 1617 was the occasion for a sectarian disturbance that appears to have accelerated the pilgrims’ plans to emigrate to America.
Later in Massachusetts, religious thanksgiving services were declared by civil leaders such as Governor Bradford, who planned the colony’s thanksgiving celebration and fast in 1623. The practice of holding an annual harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.
Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who resided with the Wampanoag tribe, taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them. Squanto had learned the English language during his enslavement in England. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit had given food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.
The Pilgrims celebrated at Plymouth for three days after their first harvest in 1621. The exact time is unknown, but James Baker, the Plimoth Plantation vice president of research, stated in 1996, “The event occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, 1621, with the most likely time being around Michaelmas (Sept. 29), the traditional time.” Seventeenth-century accounts do not identify this as a Thanksgiving observance, rather it followed the harvest. It included 50 persons who were on the Mayflower (all who remained of the 100 who had landed) and 90 Native Americans. The feast was cooked by the four adult Pilgrim women who survived their first winter in the New World (Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna White), along with young daughters and male and female servants.
Two colonists gave personal accounts of the 1621 feast in Plymouth. The Pilgrims, most of whom were Separatists (English Dissenters), are not to be confused with Puritans, who established their own Massachusetts Bay Colony on the Shawmut Peninsula (current day Boston) in 1630. Both groups were strict Calvinists, but differed in their views regarding the Church of England. Puritans wished to remain in the Anglican Church and reform it, while the Pilgrims wanted complete separation from the church.
William Bradford, in “Of Plymouth Plantation” wrote:
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they can be used (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
Edward Winslow, in “Mourt’s Relation” wrote:
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 fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
The Pilgrims held a true Thanksgiving celebration in 1623 following a fast, and a refreshing 14-day rain which resulted in a larger harvest. William DeLoss Love calculates that this thanksgiving was made on Wednesday, July 30, 1623, a day before the arrival of a supply ship with more colonists, but before the fall harvest. In Love’s opinion, this 1623 thanksgiving was significant because the order to recognize the event was from civil authority (Governor Bradford), and not from the church, making it likely the first civil recognition of Thanksgiving in New England.
Referring to the 1623 harvest after the nearly catastrophic drought, Bradford wrote:
And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving… By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine now God gave them plenty … for which they blessed God. And the effect of their particular planting was well seen, for all had … pretty well … so as any general want or famine had not been amongst them since to this day.
These firsthand accounts do not appear to have contributed to the early development of the holiday. Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation” was not published until the 1850s. While the booklet “Mourt’s Relation” was summarized by other publications without the now-familiar thanksgiving story. By the eighteenth century the original booklet appeared to be lost or forgotten. A copy was rediscovered in Philadelphia in 1820, with the first full reprinting in 1841. In a footnote the editor, Alexander Young, was the first person to identify the 1621 feast as the first Thanksgiving.
According to historian James Baker, debates over where the “first Thanksgiving” took place on modern American territory are a “tempest in a bean pot.” Jeremy Bang claims, “Local boosters in Virginia, Florida, and Texas promote their own colonists, who (like many people getting off a boat) gave thanks for setting foot again on dry land.” Baker claims, “the American holiday’s true origin was the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving. Never coupled with a Sabbath meeting, the Puritan observances were special days set aside during the week for thanksgiving and praise in response to God’s providence.”
Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution. During the revolutionary period, political influences affected the issuance of Thanksgiving proclamations.
Various proclamations were made by royal governors, John Hancock, General George Washington, and the Continental Congress, each giving thanks to God for events favorable to their causes. As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”
Current Thanksgiving Traditions
Thanksgiving is currently celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. Created by federal legislation in 1941 and has been an annual tradition in the United States by presidential proclamation since 1863 and by state legislation since the Founding Fathers of the United States. Historically, Thanksgiving has traditionally been a celebration of the blessings of the year, including the harvest. What Americans call the “Holiday Season” generally begins with Thanksgiving.
Nevertheless, President John F. Kennedy, in an attempt to strike a compromise between the regional claims, issued Proclamation #3560 on November 5, 1963 stating, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God.”