The history of Thanksgiving in the United States stretches all the way back to the early 17th century. In September 1620, a group of about 102 religious separatists called Pilgrims fled persecution in England on a small ship called the Mayflower. Sixty–six days later, they arrived at Plymouth Rock in what would later become the state of Massachusetts and set to work establishing a colony.
That first winter was brutal. Many of the Pilgrims spent it on board the Mayflower, where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and other outbreaks of contagious disease. Only half of them would survive the winter.
Weakened by malnutrition and illness, the remaining Pilgrims permanently moved ashore in March 1621. There they were greeted by Squanto, an English speaking member of the Pawtuxet tribe of Native Americans. Squanto showed the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped broker an alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, a local tribe.
In November 1621, the Pilgrims had their first successful corn harvest. To celebrate, Governor William Bradford organized a feast and invited the Pilgrims’ Native American allies to join them. This is commonly recognized as the first Thanksgiving, and on the menu were such items as lobster, seal, deer, swan and other fowl.
Other interesting facts about Thanksgiving
Many historians dispute that the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621. They argue that the earliest attested “Thanksgiving” celebration in what is now the United States was celebrated by the Spanish on September 8, 1565 in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. Others point out that Thanksgiving services were routine in what was to become the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607.
Thanksgiving is also observed in Canada; Leiden, Netherlands; Liberia and Norfolk Island.
Thanksgiving wasn’t officially a national holiday until 1863, when, in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held each November. And it wasn’t until 1941 that the US passed federal legislation declaring that Thanksgiving be held the fourth Thursday of each November.