Skip to main content

The True History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a rich American tradition, but its origins date back way before Plymouth Rock in 1621.

Yes, the history of Thanksgiving has its American origins at Plymouth, Massachusetts in the autumn of 1621. That part of the history is well, Plymouth Rock solid.

But there's much more to the history of Thanksgiving than that, with plenty of facts and figures that paint a colorful picture of Thanksgiving Day.

For example, while there was indeed a Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth in 1621, the ensuing years were holiday free, although after the Revolutionary War, various presidents did deem Thanksgiving a national holiday - usually on a single year basis before President Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a U.S. holiday in 1863, at the height of the Civil War.

It wasn't until 1941, just before the U.S. entered World War II, when President Franklin Roosevelt designated the fourth Thursday of November as the official Thanksgiving Day celebration.

Elements of the Thanksgiving Holiday

There's actually little published about the first Thanksgiving, save for a letter penned by Edward Winslow, which he wrote in a letter dated Dec. 12, 1621.

Winslow, dubbed the "Unsung Hero" of Thanksgiving by Smithsonian, was a printer and one of the Pilgrim leaders at Plymouth, who arrived at the Massachusetts coastal town on Nov. 21, 1620. That happened after 66 turbulent days on the open Atlantic. (The Mayflower's intended landing spot was several hundred miles south, at the mouth of the Hudson River, between present-day New York City and Jersey City, New Jersey.

Winslow, who had just lost his first wife, Elizabeth, to disease in March 1621, wrote of "Indian corn" and "barley", and also of "peas not worth the gathering." He also cited a directive from the governor of the Plymouth Plantation, who ordered four men into the woods to hunt "fowl" so that the colony could "rejoice together after gathering the fruits of our labors."

The celebration, pegged by historians as occurring in October of 1621, also included the local Wampanoag Indian population, led by the "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," Winslow wrote. Fifty Pilgrims were also on hand to celebrate the feast.

A second published story of the first Thanksgiving stemmed from William Bradford's historical tome on the Plymouth colony, "The History Of Plymouth Plantation."

Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth colony, and signer of the Mayflower Compact upon landing near Plymouth Rock, wrote of plentiful "cod and bass and other fish", and of "fowl that did abound" and "a great store of wild turkeys" that were hunted, killed and stored by the colony in advance of the coming cold months of 1621.

The Bradford manuscript was also the first to describe the first Thanksgiving menu, which included deer, turkey and waterfowl, cod and bass, and farm products like corn, barley, wheat, and a scant amount of peas that survived the colony's first weak harvest.

Additionally, there are historical reports of additional food bounty like seafood (lobsters and clams, especially), along with "appetizers" like nuts, strawberries and grapes which were served with the main Thanksgiving menu.

Origin of the Term "Thanksgiving"

The term Thanksgiving, itself, is linked to the original celebration at Plymouth, among the Plymouth colony and the Wampanoag Native Americans. It literally means "the giving of thanks" alluding to the "public celebration of divine favors."

The term Thanksgiving Day, however, didn't catch on until well after the 1621 celebration on Cape Cod Bay.

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

Historians date the term's origination in the 1640s when the term "Thanksgiving" turned up in public documents, and again in between 1654 and 1663, when Thanksgiving Day was first celebrated in England to record a "period of peace" after periods of military conflict. By 1675, Oliver Cromwell steered an official, national recognition of Thanksgiving Day in England through Parliament.

A History of Five Thanksgiving Day Terms

Thanksgiving Day holds a cornucopia of popular cultural terms to mark the holiday, most of them in the food category, and some religious and cultural in nature.

Let's take a look at five of them.

1. Turkey

The mainstay of Thanksgiving Day, turkey comes from guinea fowl, a bird that was widespread across Northern Africa and, yes, Turkey in the mid-1540s. In America's, where guinea fowl ran wild in the early 1600s, Americans adopted the term "turkey" to describe the bird that was soon to the centerpiece of Thanksgiving Day tables over the next century.

2. Pumpkin Pie

Thanksgiving doesn't start with pumpkin pie, but it sure does end with it at the holiday table. The term is derived from the term "pumpion", which in turn is derived from the French word "pompon", and earlier from the Greek term "pepon", meaning (or "melon.") Pumpkin historians also tied pumpkin pie to the term "magpie", which was a form of Middle English pie, dating back to the 13th century.

3. Cranberries

This tasty vine from the berry family prospered in the cranberry bogs that are prevalent near the Massachusetts coast, well before the Pilgrims landed near Plymouth Rock. Cranberries were not uncommon to Plymouth colony members - or to many Europeans - prior to shipping off to Boston. The actual term stems from the German term "kraanbere", as Bavarians saw physical similarities between cranberries and cranes (or "kraan"), birds with decidedly unique beaks.

As for cranberry sauce, another staple on the Thanksgiving menu, Europeans viewed the actual berry as somewhat sour. Consequently, a cooking trend developed where cranberries were mixed and cooked with sugar, as a sauce that could be paired nicely with turkey and beef.

4. Gravy

Another Thanksgiving staple, gravy is created from the juices that seep out from cooked meats. The tasty, brown liquid was formally introduced in 1882, when a patent was taken out for gravy by inventor and early "foodie" Philip Thorne. He wanted to create a "new and improved" flour, which could be mixed into water to form a doughy substance that could be ladled onto meat, fowl or breadstuffs. The term itself comes from the Middle English word "grave", a French word commonly found in French cookbooks in the medieval age.

5. Pilgrim

The Pilgrims were the early settlers on the Plymouth Plantation in the 1620s. The group originated from the U.K., and, as deeply spiritual Christians, were steeply religious in nature. The Pilgrims left when England created the Church of England, as they did not approve of how religious services were run, a scenario that is, in many cultures, as making a "Pilgrimage" to follow their strong beliefs to a desired geographical location.

How Does Thanksgiving Impact Business?

Thanksgiving also coincides to the formal opening of the holiday shopping season, with "Black Friday" as the traditional opening shopping day of the holiday season.

Like most Black Fridays, 2018 bodes well for the Christmas shopping experience.

According to the U.S. National Retail Federation, this Black Friday should be a boon for the overall holiday shopping season, with the shopping day as a trigger for a holiday shopping season that is estimated to crest $720 billion in U.S. sales, generating an overall growth rate of between 5.3% and 4.8% from 2017's seasonal shopping figures.

In fact, the NRF cites Black Friday as the busiest shopping day on the U.S. calendar, followed by "Super Saturday" (the day after Black Friday), and the Sunday before Christmas.

Increasingly, many Americans are expected to load up on Thanksgiving dinner, then hit the stores, online shopping sites, and mobile shopping apps to blast open their holiday shopping. According to the NRF, 32 million Americans are expected to do so in 2018.

Fun Facts About Thanksgiving

  • Forkless feast. While spoons and knives were used at the first Thanksgiving, forks were not. Forks were not introduced for another decade.
  • Big Ben off the mark. Benjamin Franklin, warming to the idea because of Thanksgiving, wanted the U.S. national bird to be the turkey, and not the eagle. Historians note that Franklin came close to getting his wish, although the majestic eagle finally carried the day.
  • T.V. dinners and turkeys. In 1953, Swanson, the frozen food king, found that it had tons of extra turkey on the company's hands after Thanksgiving Day. One executive had the idea, bad or good depending on your dining preferences, to package that extra turkey into aluminum trays and sell them to the American public as a frozen dinner option.
  • Moonwalk meal. In 1969, U.S. Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin feasted on roasted turkey, packaged in trays, after walking the moon's surface.
  • Talking turkey. Americans chow down on approximately 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day.