In November 1621, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony invited the Wampanoag Natives for a feast, a thank you for helping the colonists survive their first year in the New World.
This is the origin of the Thanksgiving Holiday. However, there is much more to the story.
The Church of England never had an easy time in its first years. Some claimed it not pious enough, others objected it retained too much from the Roman Catholic Church. Some preferred being Catholics. The Puritans wanted to change the Church from within. The Separatists wanted to start their own Church.
In 1608, Separatists calling themselves Saints chosen by God relocated to the Netherlands. The Dutch let them worship in peace but they were never really accepted. Dutch Guilds didn’t allow foreigners. Work was limited to menial tasks and English children were being corrupted by Dutch extravagance.
Around 1618, the Separatists petitioned King James I to join the Virginia Colony in the New World. He agreed. They could practice their chosen religion as long as they remained loyal to King and Country.
When the Virginia Colony was founded in 1606 it marked the birth of the British Empire. Originally, the colony claimed most of the eastern seaboard of America. They agreed to let the Separatists colonize the land near the mouth of the Hudson River.
On July 22, 1620, the Separatist Saints departed from the Dutch port of Deltshaven, bound for Southampton, England. Their ship was the Speedwell.
On August 5th 1620, the Speedwell met up with the Mayflower and the rest of the passengers bound for the new colony. The Separatists began calling themselves Pilgrims, people journeying to a sacred land for religious purposes. The rest of passengers were sympathetic to the religious dissidents but not members of their new Church.
After two bad starts, the Speedwell was abandoned. She went in for repairs twice but the sailing season was coming to an end. After a month postponement the 102 passengers of both ships along with 30 or so crew crammed into the Mayflower and set sail. It was September 6th, and the unpredictable autumn winds were already attacking the Atlantic.
After a stormy 66 day crossing, the Mayflower sighted the tip of Cape Cod. The Pilgrims made their first landing, on what is now modern day Provincetown. They stayed a month, surveyed the land and decided to move to a place previously mapped by English fisherman and explorers. It was called Plymouth. The concept of Plymouth Rock didn’t really come about till 1741 when an old church elder named Thomas Faunce made up the story.
Their first winter was brutal. Most of the passengers remained on board, suffering from exposure, pneumonia, tuberculosis and scurvy. By the time March arrived in 1621, only 53 of the original 102 survived.
When Spring arrived, an Abenaki native named Samoset walked into the colonist’s camp and spoke to them in English. He learned the language from English fisherman. Samoset introduced them to a Pawtuxet native named Squanto, who was kidnapped by an English sea captain, sold into slavery, escaped to London and eventually accompanied an expedition back to his homeland. Squanto introduced them to the Pokanoket Wampanoag tribe and their Chief, Massasoit.
The Wampanoag taught the English how to survive; how to cultivate corn and squash, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, collect oysters, mussels, berries and nuts and avoid poisonous plants.
In November 1621, after the Pilgrims harvested their first crop of corn, William Bradford, the Governor of the Plymouth Colony extended a feast invitation to Massasoit and the Pokanoket Wampanoag, a celebration that lasted for days and became the inspiration for the Thanksgiving holiday.
The alliance of peace and mutual protection between the colonists and the natives lasted till 1675. It endured epidemics of smallpox, typhoid and measles, all brought to the New World by the ever-growing population of colonists but in 1675, the Pakonoket Wampanoag declared war on the colonies. By 1676, close to half the tribe was killed. The remainder were sold into slavery.
In 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the American Ladies Magazine and composer of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, launched a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. There hadn’t been a formal Thanksgiving dinner since the days of Massasoit. For 36 years, she published editorials, wrote letters to Governors, Senators, Lobbyists and Presidents.
Finally, in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln read one of her letters. He was looking for ways to heal the country. A day of Thanksgiving seemed like a good idea. Lincoln proclaimed a National Thanksgiving Day to be held every November.
In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the holiday a date, the last Thursday of the month.