There’s a history to the history of Americans’ favorite holiday
Holidays are history lessons. Dressed up in festive clothes, packaged with wrapping paper and bows, and savored around the family table, they are annual invitations to remember events from our shared past that have reverberated down through generations and shaped our identities.
Americans observe a wide array of holidays reflecting the diverse histories and cultural heritages that have defined our communities. But as we enter the “holiday season,” when shorter days encourage evening gatherings, one holiday stands out for the broad embrace Americans have given it.
Thanksgiving is the most popular holiday in the United States, according to the public research firm YouGov, with more of us celebrating it than any other holiday on the calendar. Not by coincidence, US Bureau of Labor statistics show that Thanksgiving is also the most recognized holiday in the workplace, with more than 97 percent of workers across the private and public sectors enjoying a paid day off. It may be the closest thing we have to a moment of national unity in America.
If holidays are history lessons, Thanksgiving is at the top of the syllabus, foregrounding its historical narrative more explicitly than most. From school plays to enduringly popular parades, Americans have been taught that the observance traces back to a feast among Pilgrims and Indians at the Plymouth Colony in 1621. The near-ubiquitous embrace of this narrative has prompted a counternarrative, and since 1970, the fourth Thursday of November has also been observed as the National Day of Mourning by many Indigenous Americans and their allies for whom the arrival of the Mayflower colonists was a tragic event that still reverberates throughout American history.
Like all holidays, the history of Thanksgiving has a history unto itself. From its origins in traditional harvest festivals to its patriotic assertion of national unity in a divisive time to the inspirational parable about America’s genesis it has become, the story of Thanksgiving has been as carefully crafted as the pumpkin pies on our holiday menus.
Historians broadly agree that members of the Wampanoag Tribe and English colonists shared a festive meal in the fall of 1621 at the recently founded settlement of Plymouth in what is today Massachusetts. Those colonists called themselves Saints, and others called them Puritans or Separatists, but no one at the time really called them Pilgrims. Two first-hand accounts of the event survive: Edward Winslow’s contemporary account, published in London in 1622 under the title Mourt’s Relation, and William Bradford’s later recollection, Of Plimoth Plantation. Both authors occupied leadership posts in the colony, including governor at various times. And each devoted only a paragraph to the fateful meal, suggesting that those present did not understand it to be the powerful metaphor it—or they—would become later.
These colonial accounts were rare in England where they were published and were rarer still in America, and so they faded from view over the next two centuries. But the tradition of Thanksgiving continued to grow. "Thanksgiving" celebrations—often harvest feasts or other community celebrations that recognized cause for gratitude—were held (sometimes twice annually) by various communities throughout the British Colonies and later the United States between the early 1600s and mid-1800s. In 1789, George Washington was the first president under the then-new Constitution to declare a day of Thanksgiving, inviting Americans to observe it with reflection, prayer, and gratitude, particularly for the recently established national government. Most subsequent presidents also declared days of thanksgiving (and, usually, prayer) when there was an occasion for encouraging gratitude, but it didn't happen on a regular schedule or even every year. The colonists at Plymouth were not invoked as part of these occasional early Thanksgiving holidays.
That began to change in 1841 when Alexander Young, a white Unitarian minister in Boston with a passion for local history, rediscovered and published Mourt’s Relation with his own annotations as part of a collection of colonial primary sources he called Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth. Young included Winslow’s account of the feast, recorded shortly after it took place and sent back to England as a bit of PR aimed at fellow saints contemplating immigration:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They 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 exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest of their greatest king, Massasoyt, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God we are far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
That was Winslow’s entire description of the event. Succinct as it is, it offered far more information about the festivities than Bradford’s recollections, which emphasized the bounty of the harvest. After arriving the previous November, nearly half of the 102 ill-prepared voyagers had died during the traumatic first winter, and Bradford understandably focused on how much better prepared they were as the second winter approached. Winslow was the only one to mention the presence of ninety Wampanoag men, which would have been substantially more than the entire population of the colony.
It was enough for Alexander Young. In one of history’s most consequential footnotes, at the end of the first sentence of Winslow’s account, Young inserted an explanation that “This was the first Thanksgiving, the harvest festival of New England.” It was, writes Philip Deloira, a historian at Harvard and a member of the Dakota Nation, the first time someone had drawn an explicit line between the tradition of fall harvest festivals and the 1621 feast at Plymouth as the Thanksgiving origin story.
The notion of a Pilgrim Thanksgiving in the nucleus of America didn’t catch on immediately, however. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow failed even to mention Thanksgiving in his wildly popular narrative poem about a Pilgrim love triangle at Plymouth, The Courtship of Miles Standish, when he published it in 1858. In the campaign to create a national Thanksgiving holiday, the Pilgrims were not players.
Instead, the leading advocate for Thanksgiving, Sarah Josepha Hale, pitched the holiday as a response to the changes and challenges confronting Americans in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Hale was a white woman from New England and the influential editor of the widely readGoodey’s Lady’s Book, and she saw an opportunity to unite local Thanksgiving celebrations—which were observed in many communities but still designated at various levels of government whenever it was auspicious or convenient—into a national day of Thanksgiving that Americans would celebrate on a consistent annual basis.
Hale began a campaign for Thanksgiving in the Lady’s Book, writing in 1847 that if the holiday were celebrated throughout the nation on the same day,
though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing, that they were all enjoying the blessings of the day. From the St. John’s to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific border, the telegraph of human happiness would move every heart to rejoice simultaneously, and render grateful thanks to God for the blessings showered on our favored country.
She closed her appeal by suggesting that the last Thursday in November, the day George Washington had selected in his 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, be designated as Thanksgiving Day in every state, “henceforth and forever, as long as the Union endures.”
Hale’s pitch for an American Thanksgiving holiday was also an endorsement of the national expansion then being championed by President James K. Polk under the banner of Manifest Destiny. The Oregon Territory, today’s Pacific Northwest, had been engrossed by the new nation the previous year through a treaty with Great Britain. Texas had declared its independence from Mexico in 1845, and the US and Mexico were still engaged in a war to settle whose colonial claims to today’s US Southwest would prevail. When Hale wrote of “our favored country” stretching from the St. Johns River on Maine’s northern border to the Rio Grande River on the southern edge of what became Texas, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, she was promoting a celebration of the nation’s Manifest Destiny.
Twelve years into her campaign, Hale declared the near-victory of “The New National Holiday,” crowing in 1860 that every state or territory had declared a day of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November the previous year or within the past few years. The holiday had spread west with the country. The first newspaper references to Thanksgiving celebrations in the place we now call Colorado (although the celebrating newcomers were calling it the Kansas or Jefferson Territory at the time, while others called it Nuevo Mexico or, simply, homelands) appeared in 1859.
However, the dramatic expansion of national territory throughout the course of her effort had inflamed simmering tensions between those who wanted to expand slavery in the United States and those who wanted to end it, accelerating the nation’s descent toward civil war. In response, she adjusted her message, extolling a holiday that exemplified unity despite the nation’s increasingly dire regional fractiousness:
Everything that contributes to bind us in one vast empire together, to quicken the sympathy that makes us feel from the icy North to the sunny South that we are one family, each member of a great and free Nation, not merely the unit of a remote locality, is worthy of being cherished. We have sought to reawaken and increase this sympathy, believing that the fine filaments of the affections are stronger than laws to keep the Union of our States sacred in the hearts of our people.
The “fine filament of affections” could not overcome the southern states’ commitment to maintaining the system of racialized slavery that their economy and culture were built upon. Less than a month after Hale’s proposed Thanksgiving Day in 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union.
Undeterred, Hale doubled down on her unity message. She wrote to President Abraham Lincoln in September 1863, patriotically urging him to declare Thanksgiving as “the great Union Festival of America.” Lincoln declared himself convinced, and on October 3, the same date George Washington had issued the nation’s first Thanksgiving proclamation, he issued his own. In asking war-weary Americans to give thanks for their blessings, he also asked them to do so “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience,” and to keep in mind:
all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.
Like Washington, Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving, and Sarah J. Hale had her holiday. Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on a Thursday at the end of November ever since. (Although Franklin Roosevelt clarified that in years when November held five Thursdays, Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth.)
Lincoln’s proclamation was reprinted on October 17 in Harper’s Weekly, then one of the major news sources of the day (at least in the North). Harper’s followed up after the holiday with an illustration by Thomas Nast, the era’s preeminent illustrator, that helped cement its meaning as a moment of gratitude for the Union. Nast drew a large portrait of Lady Liberty praying at “The Union Alter,” sword and shield laid down beside her, surrounded by others grateful figures at various alters: Lincoln with his head bowed in the White House, mirroring the memory of Washington in the Revolutionary War; the two presidents flanked by the men of the Union Army and Navy; with Americans from all walks of life—including Black men and women who had been emancipated from slavery—giving thanks below. The message of that first national Thanksgiving was clear: in the midst of the devastation of the Civil War, Lincoln was encouraging celebrants to remain steadfast in the Union cause. The earlier "first Thanksgiving" in Plymouth wasn't part of the vibe. Making the Pilgrims the stars of the Thanksgiving narrative took something more powerful than a presidential proclamation to a divided nation.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the still-divided nation was in one of those periods when the fabled American promise of previous generations—always an iteration of the ideal that opportunity is available to all because of our commitment to everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—was collapsing under the weight of its omissions and exclusions. As Black Americans claimed the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and miners, homesteaders, and other settlers rushed to claim western lands that had recently been under Tribal control, Americans needed a new formulation of what it meant to be American. One that was better suited to the expanding nation and the expanding sphere of liberty the Union fought for during the war.
In this way, a nation rebuilding its physical infrastructure also set itself the challenge of rebuilding its moral and civic infrastructure. New narratives of American identity arose and took hold in the popular imagination to explain who Americans were. Some of the era’s culture makers—novelists, poets, songwriters, artists, teachers, and others—departed from the explicitly national meaning that presidents from Washington to Lincoln had invested in Thanksgiving. Instead, they looked further back in history to a time before the crisis and to earlier notions of the American character.
One of the most prominent was Jane G. Austin, the white American novelist (not to be confused with her English literary predecessor, Jane Austen) who in 1889 published Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims. Unlike Longfellow’s account of Pilgrim romance three decades earlier, Austin made the 1621 Thanksgiving feast a central part of her story. Promising readers that “they shall not be misled as to facts, though these be strung upon a slender thread of romance,” she proceeded to spin a rich tapestry of Pilgrim love triangles, intrigue, and heroism that stretched 422 pages across forty chapters.
Austin devoted chapter twenty-six to “The First Thanksgiving Day of New England.” From Winslow and Bradford’s concise published accounts, and perhaps some oral traditions handed down through New England families, she extrapolated not just a good bit of drama—including diplomatic subtexts, flirtations in the kitchen, and even a surreptitious love potion—but also an entire menu. In Austin’s telling, the feast featured oyster compote served elegantly in clamshells (which were “a singular success”), venison patties, savory stew swimming with different types of fowl, various roasts, bowls of salad set ringed in wreaths of autumn leaves, grapes, plums, pudding, homebrewed ale, and rootbeer. In addition to the venison, the Wampanoag brought popcorn, which was the first time the colonists tasted the snack. In a situation unfortunately familiar to many meal-makers today, the turkeys (stuffed with beechnut dressing) were too slow to cook and didn’t make it to the table.
Austin embroidered the thread of romance into an entire tapestry that filled in what the bare facts failed to depict. But she surely did get one thing right: the pies. Or lack thereof. The feast at Plymouth didn’t feature the pumpkin pies—or any of the dessert pies—that are traditional staples at most Thanksgiving meals today. What we think of as Thanksgiving dessert pies weren’t part of English cuisine at the time, and even if they had been, the colonists couldn't have made one because they didn't yet have access to the wheat flour or milk (and consequently butter) that are key ingredients in the classic pie crust many of us will make this November.
Although she dwelled on the food and the romances it fed, Austin concluded that the most significant part of the meal had been what it represented, which today we might call “soft power”:
perhaps the hearty fellowship and good will manifested by the white men toward their guests, and their determination to meet them on the ground of common interests and sympathies, went quite as far as their evident superiority in arms and resources toward establishing the deep-founded and highly valued peace, without which the handful of white men could never have made good their footing upon that stern and sterile coast.
Here was metaphor as main course, served with sides of backhanded compliment and white supremacy, that would become as much a part of our Thanksgiving celebrations as the non-existent pumpkin pie.
There is scant evidence in the historical record of what foods the Wampanoag people and English colonists actually shared over those three days in the fall of 1621. Although Bradford noted that the colonists hunted the turkeys that lived in the area, Winslow did not mention them as part of the menu. American historian David Silverman, in This Land is Their Land, which centers a Wampanoag perspective on that fateful meal and the events surrounding it, suggests that the table shared by colonists and Wampanoag people included a variety of wild game and seafood species native to Cape Cod Bay. It also probably featured several traditional Indigenous foods.
In addition to the turkeys, fowl (likely ducks and geese), venison, cod, and bass that Bradford noted in his inventory of the colony’s food stores, the feast may have included various shellfish and eels, which Tisquantum—known to generations of Americans today as Squanto—had shown the colonists how to gather. It also likely included different cornmeal dishes, the product of the maize Tisquantum had shown the colonists how to grow. The colonists became particularly fond of a dish they called sampe, likely from the customary Wampanoag dish called nasaump, which was coarse cornmeal boiled and mixed with fruits, vegetables, or meats.
While the colonists viewed their experiences through the novel lens of inhabiting a “New World,” Silverman emphasizes that they weren’t the first English-speaking people the Wampanoag had been in contact with. European traders had been visiting that part of the Atlantic coast since at least 1524, and had done so with greater frequency since 1602, trading with the Wampanoag and other Tribes in the region. Tisquantum could speak English because he had been kidnapped by an English ship captain in 1614 and taken to Europe as a captive, where he was groomed as an interpreter for future trading and colonization missions. After two transatlantic voyages, he found his way back home in 1619. His fellow translator, Samoset, may have had a similar experience.
The homeland Tisquantum returned to had changed dramatically in his absence. Between 1616 and 1619, the Wampanoag had been devastated by an epidemic, possibly carried by one of the European ships visiting the area. Their communities were depleted and vulnerable to attacks from the Narragansett Tribes to the west. Arriving in December 1620, the Mayflower colonists established their settlement in a place lacking many of its people. And so when Ousamequin, the principle leader of the Wampanoag who the colonists called by his title of Massasoit, expressed openness to peace with the English settlers the following spring, it was likely a risky strategic gambit to enlist an ally against other Tribes who might have eyes on Wampanoag territory.
Ousamequin entered into a treaty of friendship and mutual defense with the colonists. In fact, according to Silverman, Wampanoag oral tradition suggests that Ousamequin may have showed up at Plymouth with ninety men that fall day in 1621 because of the alliance. Hearing gunfire from the sporting contests and military demonstrations that were part of the celebration at Plymouth, the Wampanoag thought the colony was under attack and came to the aid of their allies.
Once the Wampanoag force arrived, the colonists smoothed over a potentially awkward moment and invited them to join the feast as a show of gratitude for their willingness to honor the treaty. The three-day revelry that followed was certainly a diplomatic event, Silverman says. But rather than a shrewd soft-power flex by the colonists, he describes it as “something in between a state dinner and the kind of casual mingling that the Wampanoags considered basic to the alliance.”
Jane Austin’s richly embroidered historical fiction was a hit, and Standish of Standish enjoyed dozens of printings as decades of readers thrilled to her embellished account of life at Plymouth Colony. By the early decades of the twentieth century, it was the Thanksgiving story being taught to school children.
A popular fourth grade text published in 1912, the Elson Primary School Reader, shared a script for a Thanksgiving play that attributes its foundation to William Bradford’s historic account Of Plimoth Plantation, but which seems to have taken its inspiration from Austin’s imagined Thanksgiving. Students delivered lines such as this one from “Father” explaining, “Even the Indians are to be bidden, that thus they may learn we are truly their friends and that we wish to share our abundance with them.” To which little Mary, an orphan girl taken in by the kind Pilgrim family, proclaims “we give thanks that Squanto is our friend and helps us be friendly with the other Indians.” And to which a student playing Squanto later adds, “The white men make a great feast. Squanto and his friends go to tell Massasoit to bring all his men.” But just to be sure that everyone understands the power dynamics, Miles Standish announces that there will be military demonstrations as part of the celebrations, underscoring that “One matchlock offsets a score of savages in a fair count.”
Although the actors in the Elson play lament the lack of milk in the colony, they still somehow look forward to the pumpkin pies they will make for the occasion. A few years later, in 1919 the book History Stories for Primary Grades informed young students that the Pilgrims had pumpkin pies at the first Thanksgiving, long ago…because they had no apples.” And so proceeded the generational work of creating a history to match the holiday many Americans wanted to feel connected to.
Outside of classrooms, the narrative of the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth was advanced through the public historians’ most powerful tools: monuments and celebratory events. To commemorate the 300th anniversary of that supposed First Thanksgiving in 1921, the town of Plymouth erected a majestic statue of Massasoit near Plymouth Rock, continuing the Pilgrim preference of calling the Wampanoag leader Ousmequin by his title rather than his name. In the decades that followed, grateful souvenir seekers took home miniature replicas for their desks and mantles, and communities as far as away as Kansas City and Salt Lake City erected their own copies of the monument, a journey chronicled by historians Lisa Blee and Jean M. O’Brien in Monumental Mobility.
In 1935, Macy’s rebranded the “Christmas Parade” it had staged on Thanksgiving morning since 1924—originally featuring characters from the store’s Christmas shopping displays brought to life—to be the Thanksgiving Day Parade. That year the parade featured floats depicting scenes from the Plymouth Colony, including the First Thanksgiving. But “the real star of the show,” according to Robert M. Grippo and Christopher Hoskins in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, was a six-story-tall balloon depicting a caricature of an “Indian” man. Newsreel footage shows that the balloon’s handlers were also dressed as caricatures of Indigenous people.
The story of the “First Thanksgiving” rose to prominence around the same time Americans were embracing other new expressions of identity. The “Pledge of Allegiance” first published in 1892 and was soon being recited by patriotic school children throughout the nation. That same year, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first expedition to the “New World,” President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation urging Americans to celebrate Columbus’s “discovery” as the wellspring of American life. In 1909, Colorado was the first state to make Columbus Day an official holiday, and President Franklin Roosevelt put it on the federal holiday calendar in 1934. And in the former Confederacy, communities erected statues to heroes of the “Lost Cause” in an effort to reformulate the recent history of the Civil War and Reconstruction into a more palatable narrative that they could continue to litigate.
Embracing the idea that the First Thanksgiving was celebrated at Plymouth between English colonists and Wampanoag people offered an alternative view of the nation’s origins. The Pilgrims were celebrated as hardworking, faithful, democratic, and grateful for their blessings. As Colorado school children read in A Book of Holidays, which was distributed to schools across the state for the 1915–16 school year, “Thus began a new commonwealth, founded by men and women who feared God and respected themselves.” By locating the forge of American identity in New England, which was not coincidentally in the heart of the victorious North, those who embraced that identity could more easily sidestep uncomfortable questions about the nation’s reliance on enslaved Black labor in forming that nation, as well as the violent means by which that nation had been acquired. The notion that the Wampanoag had originally welcomed the colonists to the New World and helped them thrive was a more palatable counterweight to centuries of brutal wars to wrest land from Indigenous peoples.
In 1890, the year after Jane Austin published Standish of Standish, the US Army massacred more than 250 Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. It marked the end of large-scale armed conflict between Indigenous nations and the United States. In the aftermath, victorious Americans could afford to indulge in nostalgia that offered a new interpretation of that history. Instead of portraying Indigenous people as enemies, the Thanksgiving story that emerged in this period cast the “Indians” as the noble-but-vanishing characters who enabled the success of America’s founders.
The story of that First Thanksgiving gives no hint of the violence to come. In fact, it rarely continues long enough to note that five decades after that fateful meal, Ousamequin’s son, Pumetacom (called King Philip by the English), tried to stem the disastrous tide of colonization by leading a multi-Tribal war against the colonists in 1675 and ’76. The result was a crushing defeat for the Tribes. And when the colonists mounted Pumetacom’s severed head on a pike outside Plymouth, they declared a day of thanksgiving in gratitude for their victory.
This gruesome scene, like much of what presaged and eventually followed that first feast at Plymouth, has long since been tastefully trimmed out of the stories most Americans grew up with. As a result, the story of the First Thanksgiving has persisted, more metaphor than history, in a historical vacuum that lacks complicating context and causality.
And that’s understandable for America’s favorite holiday. It’s tough to celebrate, feast, and give thanks for the suffering of others. It’s more comfortable to celebrate a sanitized story of cross-cultural connection over a meal. But the notion that Thanksgiving marks an event that initiated so much trauma and grief that some observe it as a National Day of Mourning has become increasingly hard for many Americans to stomach.
Today we are in another one of those periods when Americans are reformulating what it means when we call ourselves Americans. As was true during similar moments in the nation’s past, the stories we tell about our shared history are an act of shaping our future. At this year’s Thanksgiving table, as you pass the stuffing and politely avoid conversation about politics and religion, you might ask yourself whether we need to look back to a hazy moment in the past that raises difficult questions about what it means to be an American. This year, maybe we should be taking stock of our shared history and embrace lessons that will guide us toward a brighter future together.
As Thanksgiving’s leading celebrants—from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, Sarah J. Hale to Jane G. Austin, and Alexander Young to the organizer of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—would surely remind us, Americans have historically been grateful to celebrate a Thanksgiving that offers a helpful perspective on the present. Surely the holiday can play that role again.
In a diverse nation that is continually building (and rebuilding) its identities, Thanksgiving has come to represent one of the few remaining common touchpoints most Americans seem willing to agree on. But Thanksgiving can't be a real moment of national unity until it represents a story in which we can all see our shared history, and our shared destiny. Like a Thanksgiving feast that includes everyone’s favorite pie—apple, pecan, sweet potato, cherry, cranberry, meringue, the funky experiment someone always brings, and of course pumpkin—the stories we tell about America’s favorite holiday can and should have something for every one of us. Even those who don’t like pumpkin pie.