I would guess that there aren't too many people that haven't heard all the legends and folktales surrounding Thanksgiving. There's the costume of the Pilgrims - tall black hats with a wide white band, black frockcoat, black square-toed shoes with wide buckles, and the blunderbuss (or wide-mouthed musket).
Then, of course, there's the costume of the Indians - big, feathered headdress, loincloth, facepaint, and a limited vocabulary.
The Pilgrims were supposed to have lived in log cabins, Plymouth Rock was supposed to play a big part in the first Thanksgiving, and the Pilgrims were teetotalers (didn't drink).
Our story begins in England (specifically the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire) where a group of people calling themselves Separatists broke away from the Church of England under the leadership of William Brewster and the Rev. Richard Clifton. They believed that the church had not completed the work of the Reformation ("the religious revolt against the authority and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church"), that life should be based entirely on the Bible. Because of these beliefs (and because they were mostly farmers too poorly educated to have any social or political standing) they were harassed and persecuted.
In 1608, they emigrated to Amsterdam, Holland and in 1609 to Leiden where they were able to live a life free of religious persecution for 8 years. In 1617, because of economic hardships, the dutch influence on the lives of their children, and not being able to achieve civil autonomy (to be self-governed) the people decided to move again; this time to America.
William Brewster's family was friends with Edwin Sandys (the treasurer of the London Company). Because of this, the Separatists were able to secure 2 patents to settle in the Northern part of the company's jurisdiction. They sailed back to Southampton, England on a small ship called the Speedwell with less than half of the Separatists in Lieden.
It took 3 years for the people to be able to leave England (due to delays and disputes), but finally, on September 16, 1620, with 102 passengers, they set sail from Plymouth, England on the Mayflower. On November 19, 1620, after a 65 day voyage, they sighted Cape Cod. On November 21st, because they couldn't reach the land they had contracted for, they anchored on the site of Provincetown.
Legally, they had no right to settle in this area and so they drew up The Mayflower Compact to create their own government. After doing a bit of exploring, they discovered Plymouth Harbor and landed there on December 21, 1620 (the main body of the settlers came later on December 26th).
Once the Separatists had landed and set up their own government, they faced new challenges. They weren't really prepared to endure the hardships they encountered such as building homes, finding or growing food, tending the sick. The sick outnumbered the healthy and it is estimated that nearly half of them died that first winter.
The Separatists had brought with them seeds for wheat they intended to grow in the new world. Because of the rocky soil, the wheat wouldn't grow. The land they called theirs was inhabited by the Wampanoag Indians (part of the Algonkian-speaking peoples). The Wampanoags had learned how to work with the land. In Spring they would fish for salmon and herring in the river, in planting season they would hunt in the forests, after hunting season, they would move inland to be better protected from the cold and eat what they had stored earlier in the year.
It is from these people that the Separatists got the help they needed to survive. On March 16, 1621, Samoset (one of the Wampanoag Indians from a northeastern tribe) strode into the settlers' village. He had learned to speak english from the Englishmen who fished off of Monhegan Island, Maine. His english was broken, but understandable and the people were surprised to hear him speak their language (and considering that they didn't speak any Algonkian, this made things a whole lot easier!!). He told them that he knew of a man who spoke better english than he did and on March 22nd brought Tisquantum (Squanto) to meet the settlers.
Squanto had been captured and taken into slavery by English explorers and subsequently ended up in England where he learned to speak fluent english. He was finally brought back to America only to find that his whole village (where the Separatists eventually settled) had been wiped out by disease that the English explorers had brought with them. Squanto agreed to help the settlers learn some survival skills. They had built some houses already and a meeting house, but they needed food, medicines and the ability to survive the winter. With his help, they learned how to plant corn, draw sap from maple trees, dig and cook clams, which plants were poisonous and which could be used for medicine, how to use fish for fertilizer, and how to hunt.
One of the misconceptions about the first feast is that it was a thanksgiving feast. The Separatists didn't celebrate holidays - any holidays (not even Christmas or Easter). This was one of the reasons they left England in the first place, because the church was trying to force them to celebrate religious holidays and ceremonies. Thanksgiving to them was simply a harvest festival.
The first festival took place in October to celebrate the September harvest. The Indians were invited as a gesture of friendship and brought with them 90 men (there may have been women present also, but only the men are counted). The separatists were not prepared to feed that many people and so Massasoit sent some of his men back to their village to bring food. The feasting lasted for 3 days.
"This is the way the feast was described in a first-hand account presumably by a leader of the colony, Edward Winslow, as it appears in Mourt's Relation:
"Massasoit was a chief of the Wampanoag tribe. Also known as Ousemequin, or "yellow feather", he was born about 1590 in the village of Pokanoket which was near the village of present-day Bristol, Rhode Island. The peace treaty which Massasoit and the Pilgrims signed on March 22, 1621 was never broken. Because of this agreement, the Wamponoag and Pilgrims lived in peaceful coexistence. Massasoit's friendship with the colonists kept the Wampanoags neutral during the Pequot War of 1636. Until his death in 1661, Massasoit remained a friend and ally of the Pilgrims."
1. That neither he nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of our people.
2. And if any of his did hurt to any of ours, he should send the offender, that we might punish him.
3. That if any of our tools were taken away when our people were at work, he should cause them to be restored; and if ours did any harm to any of his, we would do the like to them.
4. If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, he should aid us.
5. He should send to his neighbor confederates, to certify them of this, that they might not wrong us, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
6. That when their men came to us, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them, as we should do our pieces when we came to them.
Lastly, that doing thus, King James would esteem of him as his friend and ally.
In 1623, the Pilgrims were suffering through a severe drought and Governor William Bradford called for a day of fasting and prayer. Soon after, they had a huge rainfall and he designated November 29th as a day of thanksgiving. This is thought to be the start of our modern Thanksgiving. However, it didn't become an annual event until 1863.
Today's annual Thanksgiving holiday is largely due to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, author of Northwood, or Life North and South. She was also the editor of Boston Ladies' Magazine and later Godey's Lady's Book. In each of these magazines she would write editorials every November stating her opinion that Thanksgiving should become a national holiday. She also wrote letters to the governors of all the states and territories. Most of the men responded favorably to her letters, but still, the holiday wasn't made official.
"There were many Americans in every state who saw the value in Sarah Hale's request, and so the idea of a national thanksgiving holiday began to take root. Although a thanksgiving holiday was celebrated by almost every state in the north, Mrs. Hale wanted something more. It was in 1863, after President Lincoln had proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in celebration of the victory of the North during the Civil War, that Sarah Josepha Hale wrote a letter to the President requesting "...to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival..." which would no longer be forgotten or overlooked.
Her request was granted on October 3 when Lincoln declared that the last Thursday of November 1863 be proclaimed a celebration, not for victory on the battlefield, but for giving thanks for the "...blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies." In 1864, Lincoln once again proclaimed the final Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving celebration. Unfortunately, he was assassinated before any other proclamations were made, but the presidents who followed have honored the precedent he set and a proclamation has been made each year since. "Since then, the date was changed only once, by Franklin Roosevelt, who set it up one week to the third Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Public uproar against this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date two years later."
(Sources used: Thanksgiving Lesson Plan, The Thanksgiving Story, The Protestant Reformation, The First Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving, The History of Thanksgiving, Plymouth MA - Its History And People)
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