The history of Thanksgiving is a little confusing. Part of the reason for this is that there were at least three “first” Thanksgivings, and the one that is most closely associated with what we celebrate today was not a holiday but a one-time feast to celebrate a particular harvest. I hope that this article will help straighten out some of the details of the Thanksgiving holiday.
There were two main groups of English colonists trying to establish a life in America during the early 1600s. One colony was established in Jamestown and the other in Plymouth. The first group to arrive in the Americas came in 1607 and landed on the shores of Cape Hennery in Virginia. These colonists established the town of Jamestown and had strained relations with the Powhatan Indians of the area.
One of the Indians, a young girl named Pocahontas, is credited with helping the settlers through their first bad winter. The winter of 1609-1610 was particularly harsh and more than 400 of the 490 colonists survived. Some reports say that without the help of Pocahontas, none of the colonists would have survived. At the end of that winter, those who did survive held a Thanksgiving celebration when the supply ships from England finally arrived. It is likely that Pocahontas attended that celebration.
Three years later, she was captured and held hostage by the settlers. During this time, one of the settlers, John Rolfe fell in love with her. He and Pocahontas were married and returned to England. Pocahontas died at age 22 in 1617, two years before the first “real” Thanksgiving celebration.
The first “real” Thanksgiving celebration was held on December 4, 1619 on the banks of the James River. A shipful of settlers arrived and they had agreed to mark their arrival with a celebration of thanksgiving that would be remembered every year. This date is not commonly associated with Thanksgiving but it is still remembered on the Old Berkeley Plantation site every year.
What we commonly think of as the first Thanksgiving was the harvest celebration enjoyed by another group of colonists. These settlers are known as the Pilgrims, and they arrived in the New World in 1620. This group also suffered a harsh first winter and lost more than 70 of the original 120 people, mainly to disease.
The pilgrims enjoyed good relations with the neighboring Indians, mainly because of one Indian named Squanto. Squanto had been captured as a slave by another English boat and spent time as a slave in Spain. During his time in captivity, he learned English and was able to communicate with the Pilgrims when they arrived. He taught them how to farm the land and how to fish. Squanto also acted as an ambassador for the Pilgrims with the various Indian tribes in the area.
After that first winter of death, the pilgrims enjoyed a productive summer and a bountiful harvest in the fall. To celebrate the harvest they threw a party and invited Squanto and about 90 other Indians. The Pilgrims at that time numbered only 53 including the babies born over that summer. The celebration lasted at least three days and was a time of feasting, gaming, and prayer. However, the time wasn’t set aside as a holiday.
The next autumn the harvest was not nearly so bountiful and there was no Thanksgiving celebration at all. In fact, it took years and years before there was an official Thanksgiving holiday that was celebrated by the whole nation. It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that we began to annually celebrate the holiday as a nation.