Thanksgiving History

Thanksgiving History

1621: the Primary Source

“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 fruits 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 at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you were partakers of our plenty.” 
                          –Edward Winslow December 11th 1621
The main contemporary mention of the First Thanksgiving celebration is the above passage by Edward Winslow from a letter he wrote to a friend back in England. This letter was published in the book which is now called Mourt’s Relation in 1622. Mourt’s Relation is a collection of 5 relations (written accounts) of the Pilgrims’ first year in New England and is made up of journal entries and personal letters. In the original printing of the book this passage is not separated in any special way from the other topics Winslow writes about. However latter editions of Mourt’s Relation have the passage edited into its own paragraph as a description of the First Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving vs Harvest Celebration

If one were to ask a 17th century person what a day of thanksgiving was, the answer would not sound much like the celebration that took place in New Plymouth in 1621 that has become known as the “First Thanksgiving”.

Days of thanksgiving and days of humiliation were religious observances that could be called for by a magistrate, church, or head of household for a number of different reasons; the former to give thanks to God for something and the latter to humble oneself before God to beseech for aid. Both of these holidays were filled with sermons, prayer, and quite often fasting.

The description of the “First Thanksgiving” with its multiple days of games and feasting instead sounds like a more secular harvest celebration which were popular all over England. However even a secular celebration, especially one held by the reformed church Pilgrims, would contain many prayers and thanksgivings to God, so it is easy to see why the event would become known as Thanksgiving.

Smithsonian First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving: A Timeline of Significant Dates


  • 1621The “First Thanksgiving” is held in Plymouth. This event which lasted 3 days was recorded in a letter from Edward Winslow to his friend in England.


  • 1789President George Washington declares the first national day of Thanksgiving for Thursday November 11th.


  • 1837Sarah Josepha Hale begins her campaign to get Thanksgiving recognized as an annual national holiday, with a set date.
Sarah Hale
  • 1863 President Abraham Lincoln declares a national Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November. From this year forward, each president will annually declare a national Thanksgiving usually in late November.
  • 1864The Union League of New York helps organize a massive campaign to deliver Thanksgiving dinners to Union troops. This successful effort helps spread the still predominantly New England holiday around the country.
  • 1876The Intercollegiate Football Association holds a Thanksgiving day football game between Yale and the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in Hoboken, New Jersey. Football and Thanksgiving becomes an annual tradition. The tradition eventually become national with the NFL hosting games at both Detroit and Dallas each year.
Thanksgiving 1861
  • 1920The first Thanksgiving Day parade is organized by the local department stores in Philadelphia on November 25th. Other cities and businesses follow suit, including Macy’s in NYC, and Thanksgiving Day parades become a Thanksgiving tradition.
  • 1941Thanksgiving becomes federally recognized as a national holiday that occurs each year on the 4th Thursday of November.
  • 1970 The first “Day of Mourning” is held in Plymouth MA. This annual protest is organized by the United American Indians of New England. This protest seeks to draw attention to the past and continuing oppression and racism faced by Indigenous People in the US.
  • 2021The 400th Anniversary of the “The First Thanksgiving” harvest celebration.
Food / Recipes 

17th century recipes for your Thanksgiving meal

Activities / Games

17th century pastimes to try at home this Thanksgiving