How Thanksgiving Became a National Holiday

Although the 1621 Pilgrim celebration at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts is usually regarded as the first Thanksgiving, other states disagree. Maine claims to have the held the earliest Thanksgiving fourteen years before the Plymouth holiday. The celebration had much in common with Plymouth’s, since English settlers shared a large meal with local Native Americans near the Kennebec River. Virginia held a religious service in 1619 after colonists landed safely at a place called Berkeley Hundred, located up the river from Jamestown. Neither the Maine nor the Virginia settlements survived, which is likely why the Plymouth Colony gets credit for the first Thanksgiving.

The colonists at Plymouth didn’t plan on making Thanksgiving an annual holiday, however. Instead, they held days of thanksgiving whenever they felt especially grateful to God. For example, in 1623, Plymouth’s crops withered. When rain fell, the colonists held a day of thanksgiving prayer. Basically, in bad times the Pilgrims fasted, and in good times they gave thanks.

Even in the eighteenth century, governors of various states proclaimed days of Thanksgiving irregularly. Some skipped the custom altogether. During the Revolutionary War, leaders in Congress sometimes proclaimed a day of thanksgiving following a military victory. As president, George Washington named November 26, 1789 as a day to give thanks for the new U.S. Constitution. For the most part, however, states chose when or if they wanted to hold a thanksgiving celebration.

Sarah Hale portrait

Sarah Hale Portrait by James Reid Lambdin

By the nineteenth century, Sarah Hale led a campaign for an annual Thanksgiving Day. Hale was the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and she used her public position to write editorials and send letters to government officials. Gradually, governors of various states proclaimed annual days of thanksgiving. Even President Abraham Lincoln declared a day of thanksgiving after the Battle of Gettysburg.

Yet Sarah Hale still remained dissatisfied. She wanted Thanksgiving to be a national holiday, not one celebrated for military victories by the government or selected by individual states. She found a sympathetic listener in President Lincoln. He proclaimed a nationwide Thanksgiving Day for the last Thursday of November 1863. Lincoln’s proclamation stated, “I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States…to set apart and observe the last Thursday in November next as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” The new holiday offered hope for the future of a nation torn apart by civil war. After the war, the former Confederate states joined in the national celebration.

Only one president tried to change the date of Thanksgiving. In an effort to help the struggling economy, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November of 1939 so consumers had more shopping days before Christmas. The public disagreed so strongly with the change that Congress adopted a resolution firmly establishing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.

How English Colonists Treated Native Americans


The Spanish conquistadors were unquestionably cruel to Native Americans. England’s colonists, however, were equally hostile toward the natives they encountered. The success of England’s colonies depended on the exploitation of Native Americans who were forced off their lands. Religion was often used to justify the poor treatment of the natives. Both England’s economic system and religion led to Native American oppression.

John Rolfe introduced tobacco to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1612. Jamestown’s tobacco growers made a lot of money by trading tobacco with the Europeans. Tobacco, however, tears up the land where it is planted so the colonists began to covet Native American lands. The Powhatan tribe tried to repel the land-grabbing English in 1622 and succeeded in killing a third of the settlement’s inhabitants. The colonists, however, successfully put down Native American uprisings throughout the decade. The Native Americans were forced to give up their lands so the colonists could grow even more tobacco.

In addition to their desire for land, the English also used religion to justify bloodshed. In 1637, New England Puritans exterminated thousands of Pequot Indians, including women and children. Captain John Underhill led the attack. He stated that the Pequot “broke forth into a most doleful cry, so as if God had not fitted the hearts of men for the service, it would have bred in them a commiseration towards them. But every man being bereaved of pity fell upon the work without compassion, considering the blood they had shed of our native Countrymen.” The Pequot had previously killed several English captains so the Puritans claimed God supported their extermination of the Pequot for the killing of Englishmen. Since they were Christians and the Pequot were seen as heathens, the Puritans felt justified in their actions.