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The History of Thanksgiving

By: Alexandra Hunter

Every thanksgiving, most families crowd around the dinner table with turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie, and many other dishes. It’s a holiday that lots of people love. “All I know is that Thanksgiving began with pilgrims and Indians. That’s all I know,” says Katlin Salewski. Lots of people celebrate this holiday but hardly anyone knows why this holiday started.

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the holidays. For more than two centuries, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual colonies and states. It wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November.

In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England in search of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. After a dangerous 66 day voyage, they dropped anchor at the tip of Cape Cod. They traveled across the Massachusetts Bay and began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth.

            The pilgrims struggled. A lot of them didn’t live to see their first New England spring. They were visited by an Abenaki Indian, who brought Squanto, a Pawtuxet Indian, a few days later. Squanto taught the pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe, a local tribe.

            In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as American’s “first Thanksgiving” – although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time – the festival lasted for three days.

Historians have suggested that many of the dished were likely prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled by the fall of the 1621, the meal did not feature pies, cakes, or other desserts, which have become a hallmark of contemporary celebrations.