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~ A Brief Thanksgiving History ~

The First Thanksgiving, painting
The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains.
In 1609 a group of people fled religious persecution in their native England for the religious freedom of Holland, where they lived for several years and prospered. But as their children grew, learning to speak Dutch and becoming attached to the Dutch way of life, these people grew unsettled since they considered the Dutch frivolous and Dutch ideas a threat to their children's education and morality.

So they decided to leave Holland and travel to the New World, where they could raise their children as they saw fit (and incidentally practice their own form of religious persecution on anyone who did not agree with their tenets-- but that's another story.) Their trip was financed by a group of English investors, the Merchant Adventurers. In exchange for passage and supplies, they agreed to work for their backers for seven years.

On September 6, 1620 they set sail for the New World on a ship called the Mayflower. They sailed from Plymouth, England and aboard were 44 members of this group, who called themselves the "Saints", and 66 others-- whom they called the "Strangers."

The trip took 65 days and was not pleasant. Many passengers became sick and one person died before they finally sighted land on November 9, and there were many disagreements between the "Saints" and the "Strangers" in the interim. Once land was sighted, a meeting was held and an agreement was worked out among them (called "The Mayflower Compact"), wherein they agreed to cooperate. Equality was guaranteed among them, and the two groups were officially unified. They called themselves the "Pilgrims".

Although they had first sighted land off Cape Cod they did not settle until they arrived at Plymouth on November 11, which had been named by Captain John Smith in 1614. It was there that the Pilgrims decided to settle. Plymouth offered an excellent harbor. A large brook offered a resource for fish. The Pilgrims' biggest concern was attack by the local Native Americans, but the Patuxets were a peaceful group and did not prove to be a threat.

It was a bad time of year to arrive in New England with the intent of constructing a settlement. The Pilgrims barely survived the first devastating winter, many dying before spring brought a reprieve. Of the 110 Pilgrims and crew who left England, fewer than 50 survived that first winter. It is unlikely that any of them would have survived the first year, had it not been for the arrival on March 16, 1621 of a Native American who walked into the camp and greeted them in English.

Squanto

Squanto was a Pawtuxet interpreter born on Cape Cod around 1580. He is thought to have been the same as the Indian named Tisquantum who was first captured along the Maine coast and taken to England; he seems to have lived there until 1614, when Captain John Smith took him back to Cape Cod.

In 1615, Squanto was captured by another English sea captain and sold into slavery in Spain; he escaped and made his way to England. After a brief visit to Newfoundland, he was taken by another English sea captain to serve as a guide along the New England coast but Squanto escaped and made his way to his Pawtuxet homeland; finding his people wiped out by smallpox, he went to live with the neighboring Wampanoags.

In 1621 he was introduced to the Pilgrims at Plymouth; he served as their interpreter in their treaty with Massasoit, showed them how to plant corn, where to fish, and generally helped them survive. He died from a fever in 1622 while guiding Governor Bradford's expedition around Cape Cod. Due to his less than honorable dealings with his own people during this time, he is not viewed with favor among today's Wampanoag.


This man was Samoset, an Abnaki Indian who had learned English from the captains of fishing boats that had sailed off the coast. Samoset left the next day, but soon returned with another Native American named Squanto, who spoke better English.

Squanto's importance to the Pilgrims was enormous and it can be said that they would not have survived without his help. It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to tap the maple trees for sap. He taught them which plants were poisonous and which had medicinal powers. He taught them how to plant the Indian corn by heaping the earth into low mounds with several seeds and a small fish in each mound. (The decaying fish fertilized the corn.) He also taught them to plant other crops along with the corn.

The harvest in October was very successful and the Pilgrims found themselves with enough food to put away for the winter. There was corn, fruits and vegetables, fish to be packed in salt, and meat to be smoke-cured.

The Pilgrims had much to celebrate: they had built homes in the wilderness, they had raised enough crops to keep them alive during the coming long winter, they were at peace with their Indian neighbors. They had beaten the odds and it was time to celebrate.

The Pilgrim
Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans. They invited Squanto and the other Native Americans to join them in their celebration. Their satchem (chief), Massasoit, and 90 "braves" came to the celebration, which lasted for 3 days. They played games, ran races, marched and played drums. The Indians demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow and the Pilgrims demonstrated their musket skills. Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, but it is believed the celebration took place around mid-October.

The following year the Pilgrims' harvest was not as bountiful, as they were still unused to growing the corn. During the year they had also shared their stored food with newcomers and the Pilgrims ran short of food.

The 3rd year brought a spring and summer that was hot and dry with the crops dying in the fields. Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer, and it was soon thereafter that the rain came. To celebrate, November 29th of that year was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. This date is believed to be the real true beginning of the present day Thanksgiving Day.
Pilgrim
The custom of an annually celebrated thanksgiving, held after the harvest, continued sporadically through the years. During the American Revolution (late 1770's) a day of national thanksgiving was suggested by the Continental Congress, but nothing came of it.

In 1817 New York State had adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom. By the middle of the 19th century many other states also celebrated a Thanksgiving Day. In 1827,
Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale began lobbying several Presidents for the instatement of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but her lobbying was unsuccessful until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Today, Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941), who changed it from Abraham Lincoln's designation as the last Thursday in November (which could occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to Christmas for businesses).

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Choose a link below for more:

A brief history of Thanksgiving
Contemporary accounts of the First Thanksgiving
Some foods the Pilgrims did and did not have at their own Thanksgiving.
Lyrics to "Over the River and Through the Wood"
Thanksgiving
recipes
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