The first Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (American painter, 1863-1930).
“The First Thanksgiving” (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (American painter, 1863-1930).

Although you can find various stories about the original Thanksgiving, this harvest celebration of pilgrims and Native Americans took place in the autumn of 1621. The first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast in celebration of a good harvest, and the local natives participated. Although there were earlier feasts by settlers in Saint Augustine, Florida and the Virginia Colony, it is this event that is the one that is celebrated.

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on December 11, 1620. Their first winter was devastating. 46 pilgrims who came by the Mayflower didn’t make it through the winter. Native Americans took pity on the travelers and taught them survivalist skills in the new world. This included planting and harvesting corn, the staple of the area. The remaining 56 colonists decided to celebrate their first good harvest with a feast and invited Squanto and the leader of the Wampanoags, Chief Massasoit along with 90 natives who had helped them survive their first year. They also discussed a treaty among themselves at that time. The feast was more of a traditional English harvest festival than a true “thanksgiving” observance and lasted three days. A few years later, Governor William Bradford called for another Thanksgiving feast and once again invited the natives.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (oil on canvas, 1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850–1936)
The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (oil on canvas, 1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850–1936)

Another reason the Pilgrims starved their first winter is that they brought with them the tradition of “farming in common.” This meant that everything they farmed was put into a community pool and the food was distributed among the people according to need. This failed miserably because people didn’t work hard without any incentive. They were unable to experience the fruits of their own labor. Upon seeing the failure of the community pool, William Bradford (right) then said, “they should set corne every man for his owne particular, and in that regard trust to themselves.” The following harvest was entirely a different one. Said Bradford, “This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted than other ways would have been by any means the Gov’r or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content.”

Because people would benefit directly from their labor, they planted plenty of food and labored hard. The first attempt at Communism in America became a failure. Capitalism had begun. These Pilgrims were mostly “Separatists,” who had left Europe to seek a land of liberty, where men could be free to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience – not according to the demands of a State church or an oppressive government. They made their intentions and motivations clear when they signed America’s first covenant, a document called The Mayflower Compact: “We whose names are under-written… Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith…”

George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed to it. The event was made a holiday in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln became the first president to proclaim the final Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day and a national holiday. In December 26, 1941, the date was changed to the fourth Thursday in November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to sign the bill into law with Congress, making Thanksgiving a national holiday on the fourth (not final) Thursday in November.

Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943, 45.75 in × 35.5 in, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943, 45.75 in × 35.5 in, Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas, is the third of the Four Freedoms series of four oil paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell. The works were inspired by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as Four Freedoms.



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