Thanksgiving Origins: Myths and Facts

Thanksgiving Origins: Myths and Facts

By |2020-12-16T17:05:28-08:00November 19th, 2016|Categories: Culture & Life, Events, Holidays|Tags: , , , , , |Comments Off on Thanksgiving Origins: Myths and Facts


Days are shorter, evenings are darker and in most places across the United States, it’s finally the season for curling up in front of a fire with a good book and a cup of cocoa. This is the time of year when the week of Thanksgiving truly eases us from fall into winter. Thanksgiving this year is on November 24, 2016, on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s a day of gratitude and giving thanks for Americans, and coincides with the changing of the seasons from autumn to winter.

We wanted to take a look at how Thanksgiving came to be such an important part of American tradition, so we did a little digging and came up with some myths and facts about Thanksgiving to share with you. Here they are, 3 Myths and Facts about Thanksgiving:

Myth #1: The Pilgrims Had the First Thanksgiving with American Indians

Fact: The “first Thanksgiving” was a normal harvest feast

In 1620, a small group of Puritans fled the Netherlands and landed in what became known as Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. These Puritans, originally from England and later known as American Pilgrims, disagreed with the Church of England and the English government, and sought greater religious freedom in the new colony. When they arrived in the New World aboard the “Mayflower” ship, led by the pastor William Bradford, they saw the colonies as their only chance for a new beginning.

Thanksgiving Myths and Facts - Mayflower

Joseph Sohm /

According to Bradford’s diary:

“The place they thought of was one of those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for living. There are only savages and brutish men, just like wild beasts. This idea led to many and different opinions. But, after many things were said, it was agreed by the major part to carry it out. Some were keen for Guiana, or some of those fertile places in those hot climates. Others were for some part of Virginia.”

After a long and treacherous journey, the Pilgrims landed and settled in New Plymouth, Cape Cod. Many of the early settlers died due to the harsh winter and the inadequate homes they had built. Bradford noted that, with the help of the Wampanoag Indians (who were the original natives of Massachusetts and Rhode Island), the remaining Pilgrims were able to survive the winter.

The Wampanoag population had a great understanding of plant cultivation due to their long history of living in such a naturally rich area. When the Puritans arrived, the Wampanoag taught them how to sow and cultivate maize, providing the new settlers with their first harvest the following year, in 1621.

Thanksgiving Myths and Facts - corn-cobs

In his diary, Bradford noted:

“They were well recovered in health and strength, and had all things in good plenty. For, as some were thus working in the fields, others took part in fishing for cod and bass and other fish. Of these, they took good store, a large amount of which every family had its share. All the summer there was of no want. And then began to arrive flocks of duck and geese”.

In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims, with the Wampanoag, held a three-day feast to celebrate a plentiful harvest. This is the event that is often referred to as the nation’s “first Thanksgiving”.

However, the United American Indians of New England (UAINE) disputes this story of “mutual benefit”. UAINE believes that a “national myth” has been created around this event rather than stories of earlier settlements, notably that of Jamestown, Virginia. That settlement’s circumstances are not as widely known nor celebrated nationally. this is partly due to the terrible desperation and hunger suffered by the Jamestown colonists, which led to the settlers resorting to cannibalism.

To protest the decimation of the Wampanoag and other Native American tribes, UAINE and other Native American organizations have declared Thanksgiving a “National Day of Mourning“, to honor Native ancestors and to educate others and serve as a reminder of the continuing challenges of Native American peoples to survive today.
Thanksgiving Myths and Facts - native-american

In his November 2012 message to the tribe, Mashpee Wampanoag Chief Qaqeemasq (“Running Bear”) wrote, ” The Thanksgiving holiday is a complicated day for our people. We are forever intertwined with the American Thanksgiving myth, however inaccurate it may be. Some of our people choose to observe this day as a Day of Mourning. Some choose to celebrate in a thoroughly American way. Many choose a different path, spending the day with family and friends, but acknowledging our unique history and connection to this day.

Thanksgiving is not something we as Wampanoag people do on a single day, it is a way of life. Every day we give thanks to the Creator, thanks to our ancestors, and thanks to the natural world around us. Today is no different. We give thanks…No matter how you choose to observe this day, please know this: I am thankful for you. I hope that you are surrounded by your loved ones and have a blessed day.”

Myth #2: Abe Lincoln was the first President to proclaim Thanksgiving Day

Fact: Several Presidents before Lincoln proclaimed days of thanksgiving

Since the late 20th century, the event celebrated as the first Thanksgiving has been debated in the United States. Thanksgiving was originally a Harvest Festival, celebrated by Native Americans at the time of the late fall harvest. Days of “giving thanks” were proclaimed by various US presidents in the 17th and 18th centuries, for different reasons and at different times of the year. George Washington, who was president at the time, proclaimed November 26th, 1789 as the first national “Thanksgiving” in the United States of America.

The next Thanksgiving date was proclaimed by Washington 6 years later, in 1795. Various governors appointed days of thanksgiving to be celebrated at various times of the year over the next century. By the time of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln decided to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November, 1863.


Lincoln was inspired to establish an official day of thanksgiving by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, who was an influential American author and editor of the time. She wrote a series of editorials and conducted a deliberate campaign for a national holiday, writing letters to five US presidents asking them to consider establishing such a day. Initially, her letters were unsuccessful, but she finally found success with Lincoln, who believed creating a day of thanks could help to unify the country after the deep divisions of the Civil War.

Sarah Hale was also the author of the famous children’s nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and the primary fundraiser for the successful completion of the Bunker Hill Monument in Massachusetts. Hale was born in New Hampshire in 1788 and lived to the age of 90. She wrote numerous novels and volumes of poems, and was the editor of of various magazines throughout her life, including Godey’s Lady’s Book, arguably the most influential publication of the time.


Letter from Sarah Josepha Hale to Abraham Lincoln

Philadelphia, Sept. 28th 1863.


Permit me, as Editress of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time, while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and — as I trust — even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.

You may have observed that, for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day, in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution.

Enclosed are three papers (being printed these are easily read) which will make the idea and its progress clear and show also the popularity of the plan.

For the last fifteen years I have set forth this idea in the “Lady’s Book”, and placed the papers before the Governors of all the States and Territories — also I have sent these to our Ministers abroad, and our Missionaries to the heathen — and commanders in the Navy. From the recipients I have received, uniformly the most kind approval. Two of these letters, one from Governor (now General) Banks and one from Governor Morgan are enclosed; both gentlemen as you will see, have nobly aided to bring about the desired Thanksgiving Union.

But I find there are obstacles not possible to be overcome without legislative aid — that each State should, by statute, make it obligatory on the Governor to appoint the last Thursday of November, annually, as Thanksgiving Day; — or, as this way would require years to be realized, it has ocurred to me that a proclamation from the President of the United States would be the best, surest and most fitting method of National appointment.

I have written to my friend, Hon. Wm. H. Seward, and requested him to confer with President Lincoln on this subject As the President of the United States has the power of appointments for the District of Columbia and the Territories; also for the Army and Navy and all American citizens abroad who claim protection from the U. S. Flag — could he not, with right as well as duty, issue his proclamation for a Day of National Thanksgiving for all the above classes of persons? And would it not be fitting and patriotic for him to appeal to the Governors of all the States, inviting and commending these to unite in issuing proclamations for the last Thursday in November as the Day of Thanksgiving for the people of each State? Thus the great Union Festival of America would be established.

Now the purpose of this letter is to entreat President Lincoln to put forth his Proclamation, appointing the last Thursday in November (which falls this year on the 26th) as the National Thanksgiving for all those classes of people who are under the National Government particularly, and commending this Union Thanksgiving to each State Executive: thus, by the noble example and action of the President of the United States, the permanency and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever secured.

An immediate proclamation would be necessary, so as to reach all the States in season for State appointments, also to anticipate the early appointments by Governors.

Excuse the liberty I have taken

With profound respect

Yrs truly

Sarah Josepha Hale,

Editress of the “Ladys Book” 

Excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:

Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation

Washington, D.C.
October 3, 1863

By the President of the United States of America.

                                        A 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. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. ….

…I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

Myth #3: Thanksgiving is celebrated only in the  US

Fact: Thanksgiving is celebrated in other countries too

Thanksgiving day itself is celebrated in the US, Canada and a handful of other countries, particularly those with ties to the US, on different days.

Canada: Canadians have celebrated Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October each year since 1957. Similar to the US, the day is a national holiday, except in a few Atlantic provinces – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland/Labrador and Prince Edward Island – where the day is an optional holiday. Canadian history traces the first celebration of Thanksgiving back to 1578, when Martin Frobisher was on a voyage across the northern part of what is the present-day Canadian Territory of Nunavut.

Frobisher was in search of the “Northwest Passage”, a sea route connecting the north Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, from Iceland across the entire northernmost coastline of Canada and the Arctic. After the loss of one of his ships during a freak ice storm, he and his men were exhorted to “be thankful to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places …” by Robert Wolfall, chaplain to the expedition.


Liberia: Liberia is a West African country established by the colonization of freed black slaves in the early 1800s. Thanksgiving is celebrated by Liberians on the first Thursday of November, following similar traditions to hose celebrated in the United States.  The idea of gratitude and giving thanks is incorporated with the celebration of freedom and independence, since the country was founded by freed slaves. Instead of a traditional turkey Thanksgiving, Liberians enjoy chicken, mashed cassavas, sweet potato pone and ginger beer. Today, Liberia’s population has diversified and descendants of Liberia make up a small minority of the population, however the American Thanksgiving holiday is still celebrated as part of the culture.


Philippines: Thanksgiving was brought to the Philippines while the country was an American colony in the first half of the 20th century, from 1898 to just after the second world war in 1946. The celebration was continued by some of the Filipino population even after the US formally recognized the Republic of the Philippines on July 4, 1946. However, the tradition was discontinued after the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Some Filipinos in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving by combining traditional American dishes with classic Filipino fare such as rellenong bangus (stuffed milk fish, flaked and fried) and mechado, a pork or beef stew with soy/tomato sauce. The traditional turkey is optional, and may be accompanied with pancit (noodles), rice or menudo, a traditional soup made with tripe.  Lumpia (spring rolls) or leche flan (crème caramel) is often served for dessert instead of pumpkin pie.

Germany: Thanksgiving is celebrated in Germany, at a time associated with the autumn harvest and rooted in ancient traditions of giving thanks and celebrating the change of the season from fall to winter. Germany’s Oktoberfest, and the German Christian festival of Erntedankfest are also harvest-like celebratory festivals held around the same time of year as Thanksgiving.

Japan: The Japanese commemorate Labor Thanksgiving Day  – (勤労感謝の日, Kinrō Kansha no Hi ?) – on November 23 each year. The day is a national holiday and marks a day for recognizing labor and production, and for giving each other thanks. The holiday originated as an ancient grain and harvest festival known as Niiname-sai. Harvest rituals took place in Japan as early as 660-585 BC, under the reign of Emperor Jimmu. The harvest festival celebrated the year’s hard work of growing rice, millet, beans and barley, and the Emperor would taste the rice for the first time during the festival, dedicating the year’s harvest to kami (spirits). Labor Thanksgiving events are held throughout Japan. The Nagano Labor Festival is one of the largest events in the country, with fireworks held on the same day to mark the end of a separate event, the Ebisu-ko Festival. This festival is the largest fireworks festival in Japan. Named for one the seven lucky gods of the Japanese Shinto religion, Ebisu, this 2-hour show is a massive display with more than 15,000 fireworks.


United Kingdom: While the British don’t have an official Thanksgiving “national holiday”, some people in the UK have latched on to this American holiday as commercialization (and Amazon) reaches across the Atlantic. It’s estimated that about 15% of Britons now celebrate the day, along with Turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy. Another reason that so many folks in Britain may be celebrating this very un-British holiday is that there’s a sizable American expat population living in the country. According to the last British census in 2011, there were about 200, 000 American-born residents in the US.


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About the Author:

Roxana Moolla is an entrepreneur, author, inventor and the CEO and Founder of Pryme. She has broad experience in digital media and marketing including strategy, technology and social media at multiple startups and large enterprises. As a technologist, she held numerous lead roles in startups and enterprise companies, including acting as Lead Developer for the startup that became, and Chief Product Architect for a new-issue, municipal-bond trading software platform. In 2008, she founded and ran a successful startup and a digital marketing agency, authored a how-to book on Facebook for small business in 2011. She holds three patents, a Bachelor's degree in Environmental Studies and a Bachelor's degree in Architecture, and is an avid tennis player.
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