American schoolchildren learn the first Thanksgiving occurred when the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe shared a feast to celebrate the Massachusetts colony’s first successful autumn harvest in 1621.
American schoolchildren did not learn that East Coast Indians celebrated and gave thanks for their fall bounty for centuries before Mayflower pilgrims set foot on American soil November 11, 1620 at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe belonging to the Wampanoag Confederation, served as an interpreter who taught the Mayflower settlers at Plymouth how to survive in New England.
Around 1614, Squanto was captured as a young man along with 23 other Native Americans by an exploring English sea captain and taken to Malaga, Spain where they were sold as slaves. Squanto escaped to England where he learned English, found employment with a London merchant, sailed to Newfoundland, and made his way in 1619 to what is now Maine.
Squanto showed the Mayflower settlers how to plant and tend 20 acres of corn and use fish (herrings) to fertilize the soil.
Fifty pilgrims, Chief Massosoit and 90 Indians belonging to the Wampanoag Confederation attended the three-day Harvest Celebration of 1621.
Pilgrims used only a knife, a spoon, a large napkin and their fingers to partake of venison (the Natives brought five deer); wild turkeys, geese and ducks stuffed with herbs, leeks, wild onions and shelled chestnuts; eels, clams, lobsters, and mussels with parsley and vinegar; beans, sunchokes, stewed pumpkins, plums, melons, grapes, currants, cranberries, and sweet Indian corn pudding.
The harvest festival was not repeated for 10 years. The pilgrims and Native Americans lived in peace until thousands of settlers arrived and spread a plague that almost decimated the Indian population.
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington declared November 26, 1789 a day of thanksgiving to express gratitude for the creation of the United States.
During the Civil War, On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first national holiday to observe the harvest festival on November 26, 1863 as an annual Thanksgiving Day celebration for family gatherings to feast and enjoy each other’s company.
In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt changed Thanksgiving observance from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday to allow a longer Christmas shopping season during that difficult economic year. The change was made again in 1940, and Congress made it permanent in 1941. (The fourth Thursday is usually the last Thursday in November.)
The USA is only one of several countries to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving for a year of good harvest.
- Canada observes Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October.
- Germany celebrates “Erntedankfest” (autumn harvest festival thanksgiving) the first Sunday in October.
- The Chinese Moon Festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month with a full moon. (October 4, 2017; September 24, 2018)
- The island of Barbados in the Caribbean celebrates at the end of the sugar cane harvest.
- The African nation of Liberia celebrates on the first Thursday in November.
- Brazil thanks God for all good things in life on the fourth Thursday in November.
- Since the 1948 American Occupation, Japan has observed November 23 as Labor Thanksgiving Day, an opportunity for unions and workers to celebrate their labor and production.
On Thanksgiving Day, present day Native Americans include a celebration of their survival.