There’s More to the Thanksgiving Story

Written by: Isabelle Grace Penta

Today, Thanksgiving in the United States has more to do with cranberry sauce and the Macy’s Day Parade than anything related to the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, and most people would agree that it’s all for the better. How people celebrate Thanksgiving is no exception to the diversity of the United States. The food, traditions, and meaning of Thanksgiving differ from family to family, and sometimes even within one family! And yet, there are still some classic elements that make Thanksgiving an iconic holiday in the States, including the importance of being thankful for what we have.

My family rarely celebrates Thanksgiving the same way twice: one year in Amsterdam, another in Dublin, just close family at home, at my grandparents’ home, with college friends, or in a hotel hallway while I finished my travel quarantine.

And yet, the holiday is also a consistent way families have handed down traditions and recipes from generation to generation. The image of a family at the table with a turkey next to bread rolls made from great-great-great grandma’s recipe and a football game on the TV is still commonly found in the States.

educators, community and digital leaders, and the public have begun talking about the holiday with a more honest and complete view of its history. The story of religious Pilgrims arriving in Massachusetts and struggling to survive until the help of Native American Indians allowed them to produce a successful harvest which they celebrated by having a meal together, is not entirely incorrect. However, it is incomplete.

The story is incomplete because it lacks a full account of what happened before and after the “first Thanksgiving.” Without more details, this story creates an image of perfect peace between the colonist and Native American Indians, when in fact, this relationship was much more strained. Conflict between the Pilgrims and Native Americans happened both before and after the first Thanksgiving and led to a genocide of nearly all Native American Indian tribes. Some honor Thanksgiving Day as a day of mourning for the Native Americans that died after European colonists arrived, the theft of Native American land, and the culture that has since been lost. Even within the many Native American Tribes that still exist today — which include the Wampanoags, who originally inhabited the land the Pilgrims landed on in 1620 — how Thanksgiving Day is honored can look very different.

Above all, the day is meant for reflection, gratitude, family, and friend. And, of course, why not have a fantastic meal on the same day?


Thanksgiving is an annual holiday celebrated in the United States of America. This year it is celebrated on 24th of November.

It is believed to be based on a feast that originally occurred in 1621. A ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth England in 1620 carrying 102 people. 66 days later it arrived at Cape Cod, and a month later they passed Massachusetts Bay and arrived at Plymouth, a settlement which was built by previous pilgrims. Most of the colonists stayed on the ship during the winter and passed away due to malnutrition and illness. Barely half of them survived and in March they moved ashore. Assured they were greeted by member of the Abenaki tribe speaking English. Later he brought to them Squanto a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. Squanto was a Native American who was sold by an English captain in slavery. After he escaped London, he came back to North America and taught his people how to cultivate corn, extract maple sap, catch fish and avoid poisonous plants. Squanto also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe.

In November 1621 the first harvest occurred. William Bradford an English general ordered a celebratory feast which would later be dubbed the first Thanksgiving.

We do not know a lot about the first Thanksgiving feast, but what we do know we have learned from Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow who wrote:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men and falling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; the 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 exercise our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king muscle side, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed 5 deer, which they brought to the plantation at bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, that's come up yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you for takers are plenty.” [1]

A few years later, a drought befell the settlers and William Bradford ordered a fast for her to drive which was followed by Thanksgiving. After that the fast and Thanksgiving that follows were celebrated annually.

During the revolution the Continental Congress ordered one or more days of things and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation. 1817 was the first year many states accepted Thanksgiving as an annual holiday. More and more states accepted it later on, but they all celebrated it on different dates and in the South, they didn’t celebrate it all.

One woman is tightly linked to the celebration of Thanksgiving as we know it today. Sarah Josepha Hale, or as she is more popularly known the Mother of Thanksgiving, was an author mostly known for her nursery rhyme Mary had a little lamb. She launched a campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hale, for 36 years, published numerous editorials and send scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents, and other politicians. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln was the first to heed her letters.

Sarah Josepha Hale ( )

President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November to be Thanksgiving Day. It was a plea to all Americans to ask God to “commend to his tender care all those who have become windows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife, and to heal the wounds of the nation.” [2]

During the Great Depression, in the year 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the celebration of Thanksgiving for a week. Mockingly the American citizens began calling it Franksgiving. In 1941 the president proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the 4th Thursday in November and has been celebrated as such ever since.

When it comes to food everyone is familiar with the very specific “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner. It includes a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. However, historians cannot with 100% certainty say that’s what the first Thanksgiving dinner contained. When it comes to the first Thanksgiving dinner, it is likely that it contained turkey and mashed potatoes. However, they were not prepared like we would prepare them today, rather they were prepared using traditional Native American methods and spices. As for the pumpkin pie, or any kind of pie for that matter it almost certainly was not present during the first Thanksgiving dinner due to the lack of ovens and sugar.

Traditional Thanksgiving day feast (credit: fortyforks, )