Modern history books are not clear on the subject of the first American Thanksgiving. So I pulled together this brief note to share the truth of early America.
The first American Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims at Plymouth Massachusetts in 1621. They were fleeing England due to religious persecution, and they came to the new world on a ship called the Mayflower.
It was their hope to establish a place of religious freedom where they could worship God according to their own convictions and not the government or king.
The Pilgrims were also known as Puritans because they practiced a form of Christian faith that wanted to purify Christianity from the rule of the Pope and the King. They felt only Jesus could be their King, and that the Bible should be available to everyone in their own language.
This was not a new idea for the Pilgrims, as it was a growing movement across Europe known as the Reformation by Martin Luther. However, this became the basis for much of the persecution of the Pilgrims by the Church of England.
The initial objective of the Pilgrims was to sail to Virginia where flourishing English settlements had already been formed. But northern winds forced them off course and they had to winter on the undeveloped shore of Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Following a dreadful first winter during which over half of the 121 Pilgrims died, the remaining settlers were able to secure the help of a local Indian tribe, the Wampanoag’s, who sent them Squanto to teach them how to plant crops, farm, and fish. Squanto had previously been taken captive and transported back to Europe where he learned to speak English. His kindness and language skill made it possible for the Pilgrims to survive.
The Wampanoag leader Massasoit also gave food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.
The next year at their first Summer harvest time, the Pilgrims called for a special time to thank God for His blessings and celebrate with their Indian benefactors a special feast of thanksgiving. This feast lasted three days, and was attended by 90 Indians and 53 Pilgrims. This feast was made official two years later when Governor Bradford issued the following proclamation.
“Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.
Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the daytime, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.
Ye Governor of Ye Colony”
For the following 168 years, the tradition of a harvest Thanksgiving to give thanks to God for His blessings was typically a local or regional event in various locations, as a nation had not yet been formed. But the ripples from Plymouth Plantation continued until George Washington issued the first Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789. Abraham Lincoln issued Thanksgiving Proclamations in the spring of 1862, also making it a Federal Holiday.
Several important events occurred as a result of the Pilgrims coming to America in 1620:
1. Before leaving the Mayflower, a representative form of government was organized and put into writing, known as the Mayflower Compact. This became the first such document of both American independence and democracy in American History.
2. Unlike some other settlements, the Pilgrims lived in peace with the neighboring Indians, showing a more Christian attitude of common respect than had been offered by the Spanish that came before them.
3. Governor William Bradford wrote a book, “Of Plymouth Plantation” in which he chronicled the first thirty years of the Pilgrims colony that eventually grew to about 7,000 members. This first hand account became a roadmap for many that followed, and left an invisible footprint in the history of America that cannot be denied.
4. Because of this, in small, almost undetectable ways today, we have all inherited some of the ideals and practices of those first pilgrims, including our desire for independence, our belief in religious freedom, our concern for others with whom we share this country, and even to the keeping of the tradition of an annual Thanksgiving tradition.
5. May we, like those first Pilgrims, take time to humble ourselves and give thanks to Almighty God for all of His many blessings today.
God bless, George Black