The First Thanksgiving: It Happened in 1863


Hanging out with Priscilla Mullins aboard the Mayflower II

Happy Thanksgiving Week Everyone!

As a descendant of  two of the Mayflower pilgrims, I’ve been sharing Thanksgiving stories on my blog all month. If you missed out, feel free to check out:

Starting With Some Gratitude

The Baby Born on the Mayflower

and The One That Fell Off the Boat

This week, I thought I’d share a history of the actual Thanksgiving.

Are you ready for this?

It happened in 1863.

Wait! The pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621! Your date is over 240 years later?!

That’s right my little pilgrims. The first official Thanksgiving happened in November of 1863, when President Lincoln made it a national holiday at the urging of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale.

Sarah was a New Englander who was interested in bringing a war-torn country together. She wrote editorials for a lady’s magazine on the importance of Thanksgiving, in addition to writing the President, all state governors, and every member of Congress once a year for 17 years!

It is Sarah Josepha Buell Hale who can be thanked for our national holiday being credited to the pilgrims. Many New Englanders did observe an annual Thanksgiving, however in 1863, the states were still divided about the holiday. The South believed the North to be celebrating their current success in the war, so many of them opted to celebrate on an entirely different day.

Playing house with the Pilgrims on Plimoth Plantation

Playing house with the Pilgrims on Plimoth Plantation

What the pilgrims really did in 1621 was celebrate their harvest. To truly understand how important that first gathering was for the pilgrims and the Wampanoag native tribe, you need to know that the pilgrims would not have survived without their native neighbors.

A local comedian and storyteller in my town put it like this:

If the pilgrims hadn’t invited the Wamanoag people, that first Thanksgiving would have been an all-you-can-eat barley buffet.

They were still learning how to live off this new land. Much of the food that became staples of their diet was learned through the Wampanoag. And it is a Wampanoag tradition to give thanks throughout the year at harvests. Since they lived off the land, they took time to celebrate it at every season. They knew the peak times for picking berries, fishing in the river, planting the crops, and hunting the forests.

Two native men burning a log to be made into a canoe.

Two native men burning a log to be made into a canoe.

A native woman tends to the fire where a fish is cooking.

A native woman tends to the fire where a fish is cooking.

See that long doughy item laying in the bark? There's a bluefish in there! It's wrapped in clay  and cooked over the fire.

See that long doughy item laying in the bark? There’s a bluefish in there! It’s wrapped in clay and cooked over the fire.

So in act of gratitude, the pilgrims invited Chief Massasoit to their harvest. He brought with him some 90 men, and the harvest feast lasted for three days.

The only known description of this first harvest was found in a letter written by pilgrim colonist, Edward Winslow. He was a key person who helped foster the friendship between Wampanoag and pilgrim. He wrote:

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 fruit 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 great 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 partakers of our plenty.

Clearly Edward Winslow didn’t care about run-on sentences.

Eh-hem. So there you have the first harvest, which we now refer to as the first Thanksgiving.

Other noteworthy topics of conversation you can toss around the turkey table this week with family, include…

  • The first Thanksgiving had no forks. They used knives, spoons, and their fingers. Forks were not yet invented.
  • Eels were considered a delicacy and lobsters were lower class.
  • Venison was the main course served, followed by turkey.
  • The Wampanoag word for “time of harvest” is Keepunumuk.
  • Beer was considered a normal drink regardless of age, gender, or class.
  • Both cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies came years after the first Thanksgiving.
  • In the 1800’s celery was the featured vegetable – pricey, but available, it was often laid on the table in a fine silver bowls filled with cold water to let the stalks crisp up.
  • Sports have always been present at Thanksgiving. After dinner was over, the men would go to the fields to play ball or pitch horseshoes.
  • It was President Franklin Roosevelt who made Thanksgiving a truly official holiday, signing the Congressional bill that made it law in 1941.

How will you be celebrating Thanksgiving this year?

24 responses

  1. We will go to my brother in law’s house and celebrate the old fashioned way . . . eating, drinking and watching football.

    I believe your Pilgrim ancestors would approve. 🙂

    1. Well, they did eat, drink beer at their meals, and play sports, so yes. You’re in good company. 😀

  2. We are going to a party in the morning and will eat turkey in the afternoon. You may want to check out my blog post toady about the Pilgrims since you descended from them!

    1. I already have it up in my queue to read! I’m excited!!!

  3. Loving your Thanksgiving posts, Jess!

    1. Thanks Diana! Do you lend out your mermaids to help with the Thanksgiving dish washing? 😉

      Hope you get to enjoy the holiday!

      1. LOL! Anyone who expects to have dishes after the mermaids get done with them are welcome to their washing, er, skills.

        Happy Thanksgiving, Jess!

  4. I’m also a Mayflower descendant! I’m working this Thanksgiving and hopefully keeping the kids calm and having fun 🙂

    1. Holla!!! What pilgrim are you descended from? Have you ever visited Plymouth, MA? They really do have some cool history and Plimoth Plantation is a living history museum which is so cool to step back in time.

  5. Thanks for sharing the history of Thanksgiving! Some things I knew, others I did not (e.g. celery and eels). I will be hosting again this year, and our townhouse will be brimming with family members.

    1. Make sure you share the recipe(s) that are the standouts! You boasted of showing off your skillz, so I want to see what good eats you have.

  6. Having parents over. A quiet but welcome day spent with family.

    1. Sounds wonderful! Enjoy it Kathryn! Happy Thanksgiving!

  7. Great pictures and information. I am going to take some of those fun facts you have at the end of this post and incorporate them into a little game at the table on Thanksgiving! Grandparents and teens will get a kick out of this! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. 🙂

    1. Awww, I LOVE that idea! Let me know how they liked it! Happy Thanksgiving!!!

  8. My grandmother used to put celery stalks on the table in a crystal glass of ice water. I secretly thought she was nuts. Why would we want to eat celery when there were all these other good things to eat. Now I know it was probably a tradition handed down from her mother. My grandmother, btw, was born in 1898.

    Thanks for all the cool history, Jess!

    1. Aww that’s so cool. What a great bit of family history. I’m so glad you shared that with me. Happy Thanksgiving Kassandra!


    1. That’s still a looong time ago! Happy thanksgiving!

      1. Yeah, and who these days wants to hear about the “Bubble” South Sea land speculation Scandal that probably prompted Sir Thomas Caswell to escape the heat his father, Sir George Caswell, made via same! 🙂

  10. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:

  11. […] The First Thanksgiving: It Happened in 1863 […]

  12. […] you know the story of the first Thanksgiving? Think again. Thanksgiving, as a national holiday, wasn’t celebrated until 1863, over 240 years […]

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