This webpage describes the history of Thanksgiving in America and the Mayflower Compact.


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The Origin of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving has its roots in the first Plymouth Colony's Thanksgiving Celebration in 1621. The Plymouth Colony was established in 1620 with the landing of the Mayflower with 102 Pilgrims aboard at Provincetown Harbor in Cape Cod on November 11, 1620.

Voyage on the Mayflower

The Mayflower's journey began in the English village of Scrooby. A congregation of Separatists, or Puritans, emigrated from there to Leiden, Holland. After a few years they began to desire a land of their own where they could live as Englishmen and preserve their faith. News about the thriving English colony at Jamestown in Virginia led them to apply to the Virginia Company for a patent. They were granted rights to found what was known as a Particular Plantation, to be located somewhere near the mouth of the Hudson River.

The Separatists were unable to finance an expedition themselves, but a group of merchant capitalists, who called themselves the Company of Adventurers, agreed to provide necessary finances in return for most of the profits earned by the colony in the first seven years of its operation. These merchants chartered the Mayflower for the voyage to America. The Leiden group bought a much smaller ship, the Speedwell, and 35 of the congregation sailed on it from the Netherlands to Southampton, England.

At Southampton they met the rest of the future colonists, who were non-Separatists enlisted by the company to provide enough people for a working colony. These others were referred to as Strangers. The Separatists called themselves Saints. Numbering approximately 120, with 90 aboard the Mayflower, the Pilgrims set sail for Southampton on August 15th. After a few days sailing, the Speedwell was found to have leaks. The two captains turned back and turned into Dartmouth for repairs. Almost two weeks later they set out once more. Again, the Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy. This time they put into Plymouth, where it was decided to abandon the ship. Some 20 would-be colonists were abandoned also, since the Mayflower could not hold all of them. On September 16th, the Mayflower set out alone for America.

Pilgrims Sail to America on the Mayflower

"Pilgrims" is a collective name for the first group of permanent European settlers in New England. The name masks the real differences among the 102 people (one third of them children) who stepped ashore at Plymouth in 1620. In their own eyes they were a group divided between Saints, those with religious reasons for leaving home, and Strangers, those with economic motives. Despite their differences, they created the Mayflower Compact, an agreement for living peacefully together.

Mayflower Compact

"In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620."

Pilgrims Suffer Greatly the First Year in America

The first year, the Pilgrims fought the cold, hunger, and illness that gripped the colony during the first devastating winter. By the spring of 1621, half of the original group had died, and whatever divisions there were on the voyage across the ocean were muffled by the grief and determination to survive that they shared.

Indians Come to the Rescue of the Pilgrims

In March 22, 1621, Samoset, a Monhegan Native, brought Tisquantum (Squanto) to New Plymouth and announced the imminent arrival of the Wampanoag leader Massasoit. Governor Carver and Massasoit concluded a treaty of peace. Squanto, and others from his Wampanoag (League of the Delaware) tribe taught the pilgrims how to plant and tend crops that would thrive in the Massachusetts climate. Squanto stayed and worked with the colonists.

First Thanksgiving, Late Sept/Early Oct. 1621

In late September/early October 1621,a 3-day harvest celebration was held in Plymouth with 59 survivors of the original Plymouth Colony and some 90 Wampanoag men. On the menu were sea bass, cod, wildfowl-duck, geese, or wild turkey; cornmeal; and five deer brought by the Indians. Vegetables and fruit were probably part of the meal also. Games, singing, and dancing were most likely part of the celebration. In a firsthand account written by a leader of the colony, Edward Winslow,:

"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 their greatest King Massasoit, 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 this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

From this we know that the feast went on for three days, included 90 "Indians," as Native Americans were called then, and had plentiful food. In addition to the venison provided by the Native Americans, there was enough wild fowl to supply the village for a week. The fowl included ducks, geese, turkeys and even swans.

During the three-day Harvest Home festival and feast in 1621,the Pilgrims celebrated the bounty of those crops and arose out of their endurance and the deep communal bonds they shared among themselves and the friendship they shared with the Wampanoag. [By 1623, this same pilgrim group was giving thanks for the smallpox plague that had wiped out most of this tribe and within a generation, they were selling them into slavery -- but that's a different story.]

Over the 17th century, Plymouth Colony held many of these special observances as circumstances required. Beginning in the 1680s, officials called for public thanksgiving and fast days �for the mercies of the yeare� on an annual basis. In the 1700s, they settled into a cycle of spring Fast Days and autumn Thanksgivings.

Thanksgiving Becomes National Celebration(1863)

Massachusetts' annual Thanksgiving Day, held on the last Thursday of November, was absorbed by the national Thanksgiving Day established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. This was the first nationally declared Thanksgiving Day for the United States, which is still observed on the fourth Thursday each November to the present day.

1. John Lothrop, �Scituate and Barnstable Church Records,� The New England Historical and Genealogical Register 10 (January, 1856):p. 38.

2. John Cotton, Jr., �Plymouth Church Records, Volume I, Part V,� Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts: Volume XXII: Collections (Boston: The Society, 1920), p. 257.

3. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, Ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), p. 47.

4. Edward Winslow, Good Newes from New England, [1624], ed. Alexander Young (Bedford: Applewood Books, 1996), pp. 54-56.

5. Bradford, p. 130.

6. Cotton, p. 255.

7. Thomas Hutchinson, The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay, ed. Lawrence Mayo, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936), I:359.

8. Lothrop, p. 39.

9. Lothrop, p. 39.

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