Katelyn Buxton/The Mainstream
Professor Charles Young is an associate professor of social science at UCC.

History professor shares the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday and why it endured

While turkeys, travel plans and pumpkin pies are foremost in the public’s thoughts, is anyone wondering just what happened on that first Thanksgiving in 1621?

Most people have heard how the Wampanoag Indians formed an unlikely friendship with the Puritan settlers of Plymouth, but it is difficult to explain the history of the Thanksgiving holiday without first understanding the events that led up to it.

“Many of us today do not realize how desperately the first settlers struggled for existence in those first months here. Only half of the original 102 Pilgrims who arrived in the fall of 1620 survived to the following spring,” says Charles Young, who holds a Master’s Degree in History and is an associate professor of social science at UCC. “Clearly those still living in the English settlement had intense reason to give thanks to God for even still being alive.”

The struggle to stay alive was a problem that the tribes also faced during the early years of European contact. Even before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth in 1620, as many as 90% of the coastal Indians had died of Old World diseases brought to them by temporary encampments of European fishermen who were harvesting cod. This makes their goodwill towards the settlers even more surprising.

“The friendliness for and support of the Pilgrims by the Indians should never be forgotten,” says Young. “The settlement at Plymouth even occupied cleared fields where once an Indian village had been before the massive die-off.”

The first Thanksgiving lasted three days and was enjoyed by 100 Wampanoag Indians, including Chief Massasoit and the remaining Pilgrims. “That the Indians should have been invited was only right given they had befriended the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621. They were instrumental in the survival of the remaining Pilgrims, showing them how to plant and best grow maize (corn), a new crop to the English, along with providing much-needed wild game,” Young says.

Besides an abundance of corn, the Wampanoags brought five deer to the feast, in addition to the berries, dried fruit, and seafood that was eaten. It was also very likely that turkey was present at the first Thanksgiving.

This early friendship stands out as a unique example of unity between the Indians and European settlers. While later newcomers often displayed sycophantic tendencies in their relationship with the Indians, Young points out that there was still “a large measure of heart-warming altruism involved on both sides in this shared celebration of ‘feasting, games, and military exercises,’ a true giving of thanks for the harvest bounty and of life.”

While relations between the Indians and the Pilgrims did eventually sour, leading to war with the Wampanoags in 1675, the tradition of Thanksgiving had taken root. For many years it remained an unofficial and locally practiced celebration until 1789, when George Washington suggested that it become a November holiday across the entirety of the young United States.

By 1815, however, the tradition of Thanksgiving was in danger of being forgotten. Around that time, a New England woman named Sarah Josepha Hale began to campaign for a national observance day for Thanksgiving, using her platform as editor for a magazine titled “Godey’s Lady’s Book.” Her work was rewarded in 1863. “President Lincoln declared two national Thanksgivings, one in August in honor of the victories at Gettysburg Vicksburg and the second in November,” says Young.

However, it wasn’t until 1941, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, that Congress finally established Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November each year. The holiday we know today finally had a permanent place on the calendar.

While harvest feasts have been taking place ever since humanity first began growing crops, the Thanksgiving of 1621 has long stood out as a distinctive event worthy of remembrance. Today, the holiday is one of America’s most celebrated.

“Of all our celebratory holidays, Thanksgiving is the one most associated with family get-togethers, with ‘going home,’” says Young. “The Sunday after Thanksgiving is the busiest travel day of the year in the U.S. as people return from their family gatherings. Some 40 million Americans drive 100 miles or more to have a shared Thanksgiving Dinner and some 10 million fly daily over the long Thanksgiving weekend.”

The Thanksgiving celebrations of today may no longer last three days, or feature upwards of 100 guests, but the theme of thankfulness is the same.

“As a history professor looking as often as possible at the big-picture canvas of humanity over the centuries and millennia I am a firm believer in the evidence that life is better for the majority of people on this Earth than in any supposed ‘golden age’ or ‘good old days’ of the past when it comes to improvements in basic freedoms, health, education, travel, equality, and prosperity,” says Young. “We do have much to be thankful for! Have a happy Thanksgiving!”

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