Holiday History: Thanksgiving

The scene is familiar, matching the historic description of the first Thanksgiving: a group of grateful European settlers share a Thanksgiving feast with a local native tribe.

The location is St. Augustine, Florida, and the date is September 8, 1565.

If that date seems a little early, that’s because it is. But history shows there was a Thanksgiving in what became the United States 56 years before the traditional first Thanksgiving, which was a three-day feast in 1621 with the Wampanoags and the Puritan group better known as the Pilgrims.

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This is how the National Park Service describes the earlier event, in wording used at the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.

“On September 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers founded the city of St. Augustine in Spanish La Florida. As soon as they were ashore, the landing party celebrated a mass of Thanksgiving. Afterward, Menéndez laid out a meal to which he invited as guests the native Seloy tribe who occupied the site.” (Other references identify the Seloy tribe as Timucua.)

Unfortunately, the St. Augustine observance echoes the Massachusetts one in another way. Within a year, relations with the Native Americans had deteriorated.

The treatment of Native Americans since the early days of contact with Europeans has led many to diminish the story of the first Thanksgiving. Certainly, the realities of that feast are much more complicated than the construction paper turkeys and Pilgrim hats some of us cut out when we were in elementary school.

Some have even questioned the presence of the Wampanoags at the feast. There are two primary sources for their attendance, though: Edward Winslow and William Bradford, both of whom were there.

Tisquantum, or Squanto, the Patuxet hero of the story, was a real person. After being captured and taken to Europe, he was able to escape and return to North America, making him present when the Pilgrims arrived. He really did show the Pilgrims where to catch fish and eels, and how to plant their corn, which led to their survival and their successful year.

President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an annual holiday beginning in November 1863, in the midst of the Civil War.

Here is how he began his proclamation.

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

Lincoln then made remarks about the war. To put the timing into context, Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19. The Thanksgiving holiday he proclaimed was just one week later, November 26.

Lincoln went on in his proclamation:

“No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States…to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

In his way, Lincoln was echoing the words of George Washington, who in his very first year as president called for a one-time Thanksgiving celebration. That observance was also on the fourth Thursday of November—which fell on the same date as Lincoln’s proclaimed holiday in 1863.

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks…” Washington wrote.

History shows that progress is not always linear. Initial good relations between European settlers and Native Americans faltered, often with catastrophic results. Divisions already apparent at the time of George Washington’s presidency led to the Civil War in Lincoln’s.

Gratitude, though, is always available. Though we may spend much of the day binge eating, watching football, or trying to avoid arguing about politics, this is a day set aside to be thankful.

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