For all of the fanfare around Thanksgiving in America — between the turkey dinners, Black Friday sales, and the semi-mythical 17th-century feast that pilgrims and Native Americans shared to “give thanks” — there is almost no historical record about the First Thanksgiving, a so-called historic meal that became the basis of a national holiday.
It’s not that there wasn’t any meal at all. Experts now say that perhaps more than 100 people were at the first Thanksgiving-like meal at Plymouth, and that the feast may have even lasted for a few days, given how long it took to travel anywhere back then. But there are only two primary sources that talk about that first feast, which is thought to have occurred at some point in the fall of 1621.
One is a paragraph by pilgrim Edward Winslow, published the following year in a pamphlet on the pilgrim experience entitled Mourt’s Relation. According to a modern translation provided by the Plimoth Plantation, the Governor sent men out to hunt fowl for a “special celebration” of the completed harvest, at which time a large Wampanoag group, including their leader Massasoit, came to the plantation with five deer they’d killed and “for three days we entertained and feasted.”
“And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us,” Winslow wrote, “yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
The other source for the first Thanksgiving is a passage of several sentences that Plymouth Colony’s Governor at the time, William Bradford, wrote between 1630 and 1647 in his influential history of pilgrims and the colony, Of Plymouth Plantation. The passage describes the settlers getting ready for the winter by stocking up on food. The bounty of the harvest was so great that, Bradford explained, the people wrote home about just how much they had to eat: “Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports,” he wrote.
This lack of primary sources leads some historians to think that perhaps the meal was just not that important at the time.
“We just don’t have good enough documentation” of the meal or the period in general, according to Peter Mancall, an expert on the history of colonial America and Native Americans at the University of Southern California. He argues that if the meal were as important as it seems today, Bradford would have talked about it more in his famous work.
Such hospitality also wouldn’t have been new, given that Native Americans had been involved in a series of trade exchanges with Europeans throughout the 1500s, he adds.
“We want to point to this moment and say, ‘Oh isn’t it nice that these colonists and native peoples got together and feasted together, but it’s not a first meeting,” he says. “Europeans quickly learned that they needed to create positive relations with native peoples because they need the resources locals had. So when the pilgrims show up, the natives are looking at the English as potential trading partners. The first Thanksgiving is in that sweet spot, as people are really understanding that it’s good to trade with others and treat others well, and it’s a moment that happened to get enshrined in [Winslow’s] letter from 1621.”
Such warm feelings would not last much longer. A plague wiped out nearly half of the Native American population, while colonists’ views of the locals grew decidedly more suspicious, a shift that is often traced to the Powhatan uprising of 1622 in Virginia. And generally, as more English settlers arrived, seeking to live on the land inhabited by Native Americans, the more tensions grew. Bradford’s and Winslow’s letters would end up being largely forgotten for two centuries.
That 1621 feast seems to have become important later on, because of what was going on in America in the mid-19th century. Antiquarian Alexander Young rediscovered Winslow’s letter in Philadelphia around 1820, and published it in full in his 1841 history Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, while Bradford’s manuscript Of Plymouth Plantation was recovered in the 1850s.
There’s a good chance that these works were seen by the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, who advocated for a national day of thanksgiving around the same time these documents were rediscovered. As part of her work, she published Thanksgiving-themed poems, stories of family dinners and recipes for roast turkey, pumpkin pie and sweet potato pudding. She also launched a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress, governors and Presidents. But at the time, amid debates about the limits of state and federal power, the idea was controversial: President Zachary Taylor said in 1849 that it was up to the states to decide whether to make Thanksgiving a holiday, while some in the South saw Thanksgiving as “another manifestation of intrusive, New England moralism,” according to Ryan P. Jordan’s Church, State, and Race: The Discourse of American Religious Liberty, 1750-1900.
Yet in a Sept. 28, 1863 letter to President Abraham Lincoln, Hale argued that a national holiday of Thanksgiving, centered on families uniting in a divided America, would boost the Union cause. She called for a “National and fixed Union Festival” that would occur on the last Thursday of November, which also happened to be the day that the first U.S. President George Washington had earlier chosen for a day of “public thanksgiving” to give thanks for “the peaceable and rational manner” in which they were able to draw up a U.S. Constitution after the American Revolution.
Lincoln apparently agreed. On Oct. 3, 1863 — the anniversary of Washington’s proclamation — a Lincoln proclamation designated “the last Thursday of November” a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” A Baltimore Sun editorial noted that “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity…the American people should take some time for gratitude.”
As Mancall puts it, “By the 19th century, [the feast] was more important than it was in the 17th century or 18th century.”
Hale would not live to see today’s version of Thanksgiving become the law of the land. In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a joint resolution passed by Congress designating the fourth Thursday of November a federal Thanksgiving holiday, to account for years when there are five Thursdays in November. Modern Thanksgiving has been celebrated ever since.
Correction, Nov. 20, 2019
The original version of this story misstated the name of the antiquarian who published Edward Winslow’s letter. He was Alexander Young, not Andrew Young.