Texas History Minute Bridges: Tradition of special day for giving thanks predates Pilgrims
In what has most certainly been one of the most unusual years in memory, the nation will mark Thanksgiving once again on this fourth Thursday in November. It is part of a long tradition that has spanned many generations, including historical parallels in Texas.
Perhaps the most notable Thanksgiving feast was that of the Pilgrims at the Plymouth Colony on Nov. 22, 1621. It had been a difficult year for the English settlers who had arrived in Massachusetts the previous November. The Wampanoag tribe, which controlled most of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, made offers of friendship to the Pilgrims, sharing their food as the colonists struggled through the winter and then taught them about raising crops in the area.
After a bountiful harvest that fall, the Pilgrims decided to organize a feast to give thanks to God for their good fortune. In the spirit of gratitude, the Wampanoags were invited to join them in what became a three-day feast. The meal was quite different than the usual fare seen on American tables today. Using what was available locally, they ate swans, seals, deer, fish, and lobsters.
Such celebrations to give thanks to God were not unusual among Europeans in general during that time period. By the time of the famous 1621 Thanksgiving at the Plymouth Colony, other feasts to give thanks had occurred already in other parts of the nation.
In 1541, Spanish conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado had a special Thanksgiving Mass held for him and his men not far from what is now Amarillo and the Palo Duro Canyon in celebration of their good fortune. In 1565, Spanish conquistadores led by Pedro Menendez de Avile at the settlement of St. Augustine, Florida, held a special Roman Catholic mass and later a feast to give thanks to God for their safe arrival. They invited members of the local Timucua tribe to join them.
In 1598, more than 500 Spanish colonists led by Don Juan de Onate arrived at San Elizario, near modern-day El Paso, and had a special day to give thanks for their own good fortune. This has led some to claim San Elizario as the site of the First Thanksgiving.
As for the Pilgrims, the Plymouth colonists and the tribes did not repeat the occasion in 1622. In 1623, after a difficult year of droughts that threatened the crops, late rains rescued the harvest. As it proved to be much more bountiful than expected, the colonists again had a celebration to give thanks that November. Tragically, relations with the Wampanoag tribe deteriorated in the ensuing decades with the initial gestures of friendship forgotten and the tribe shattered by war. Nevertheless, New England residents would continue to have periodic Thanksgiving observances in the years afterward, often organized by the local churches.
In spite of a few instances of Thanksgiving observances in the South, it did not catch on as an annual observance as it did in New England. The tradition, however, spread northward into the British colonies in Canada, where observances remained mostly local until the late 1800s. It was established as an official national holiday in Canada in 1957, and because of Canada’s shorter growing season, on the second Monday in October.
New York became the first state to declare Thanksgiving a holiday, starting in 1817. Efforts were made to make it a national holiday in the 1820s, led by noted writer and educator Sarah Josepha Hale of New Hampshire.
Up until the Civil War, the date of Thanksgiving was left to the states and made more of a local observance. Dates for Thanksgiving ranged from early October through the end of December. In 1863, Secretary of State William H. Seward convinced President Abraham Lincoln to make it a national holiday on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln announced the holiday as a day to give thanks to God for the blessings the nation had and added that all Americans should remember the widows and orphans the war created.
In 1941, the holiday officially became the fourth Thursday in November from that point onward. President Harry Truman started the tradition of pardoning one turkey for Thanksgiving in 1947.
Other nations have also adopted Thanksgiving, inspired by the American example. Liberia, which was founded by former American slaves, marks Thanksgiving as the first Thursday in November, dating back to 1821. Brazil made the fourth Thursday in November its Thanksgiving holiday in 1966 after their ambassador to the United States saw the American holiday firsthand.
Turkey sales have topped $1 billion annually in the past few years. Many churches and communities still continue with the initial spirit of Thanksgiving by reaching out to the poor and homeless with food drives and community Thanksgiving meals prepared and served by volunteers. Though the coronavirus pandemic may dampen many travel plans and gatherings out of precautions for public health, millions of Americans will still pause to consider what they are thankful for.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.