The year 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the event Americans celebrate as the “First Thanksgiving.” Join Active Minds for a program exploring that historic feast and the traditions that have developed over the years.  We will have some fun as we undress the turkey, unpack the stuffing, and peel back the mystery of the potatoes.  We guarantee to satisfy your curiosity…but not your appetite.

Key Lecture Points

  • In September 1620, the Mayflower set sail from England for the New World with 104 people aboard, many seeking religious freedom.  The ship landed in November on what is now known as Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  Eventually, these travelers settled the first lasting colony of Europeans in New England at Plymouth Harbor. More than half the Plymouth settlers died in the first winter.
  • In the spring of 1621, the Wampanoag tribe, led by Chief Massasoit, befriended the colonists.  With the translating help of Tisquantum (also called Squanto) a Wampanoag who had been kidnapped 7 years earlier and forced to England, the Pilgrims forged an alliance with the Wampanoag.  Additionally, Tisquantum taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn and where to hunt and fish in the territory.
  • Grateful for their survival and for their first harvest in the New World, the Pilgrims held a three-day celebration of food and entertainment that was attended by Massasoit and 90 of his men.  This event is considered by some to be the first Thanksgiving.
  • Thanksgivings for specific events like bountiful harvests, the arrivals of supply ships from Europe and victories over Native Americans continued to be held sporadically in British New England.
  • The mother of the modern American Thanksgiving holiday is Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, who campaigned for decades for a day of national thanksgiving.  Seeing such a holiday as a way to bring unity, President Lincoln proclaimed two national Thanksgivings in 1863, one to commemorate the Union victory at Gettysburg and the second as a day of thanksgiving for “general blessings” that would be observed every year on the 4th Thursday of November.
    The Thanksgiving holiday was held on the 4th Thursday of November until 1939 when President Franklin Roosevelt decided to change the day of observance to the 3rd Thursday to help Depression-era retailers by extending the length of the holiday shopping season.  This change caused great confusion but no appreciable economic improvement so in 1941 Congress returned the holiday to the 4th Thursday.
  • Although Thanksgiving can be celebrated in many different ways, including protest, a national holiday offers the opportunity to focus on our history and our values.

Exploration Questions

  • Why did the Pilgrims come to the New World?  What obstacles did they face?
  • How did Thanksgiving come to be a national holiday?
  • How can we find a balance between shared national traditions and individual or family-based celebrations?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you agree with the United American Indians of New England that Thanksgiving is a Day of Mourning?  Why?  Why not?
  • Does your family have any unique Thanksgiving traditions?  How did they become traditions for you?

More to Explore

  • Information on the passengers of the Mayflower Click here
  • Informationon Plymouth Colony Click here

Books for Further Reading

  • Bradford, William. Governor William Bradford’s Letter Book.  Applewood Books, 2002. 80 pages. These letters and documents give a firsthand account of Plymouth Colony’s crucial first decade.
    Click here to order
  • Wright, Eric and Miles Branum.   Thanksgiving in the United States: A holiday History and Tradition Guide.  Webster’s Digital Services, 2010. 296 pages.  This book tells the history of the Thanksgiving holiday and its traditions.
    Click here to order
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel.  Mayflower:  A Story of Courage, Community and War. Penguin Books, 2007. 480 pages.  The author paints the story of the Pilgrims’ voyage on the Mayflower, the early days of Plymouth Colony and King Philip’s War.
    Click here to order
  • Brooks, Lisa. Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War. Yale University Press, 2019. 448 pages. This book relies on the stories of Weetamoo, a female Wampanoag leader, and James Printer, a Nipmuc scholar, to offer a new understanding of Native resistance during King Philip’s War.
    Click here to order