Why We Give Thanks
Learn about the origins of Thanksgiving, from Squanto and the Pawtuxet tribe to the Pilgrims and the Plymouth Colony.
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
The origins of Thanksgiving can be traced back to a Native American called Squanto and the settlers of Plymouth Rock, known as the Pilgrims.
It all began in England in the early 1600s. A group of Englishmen got fed up with religious persecution. Historians refer to them as separatists. Separatists and their families fled to the Netherlands for religious freedom. For a few years, they enjoyed religious tolerance.
But some members of the group wanted to establish a new religious community in the New World. Hoping to find a better life, they negotiated with investors to fund their voyage to the New World (now called America). On September 16, 1620, 101 separatists and investors, along with 20 to 30 crewmen, set sail on a ship called the Mayflower. The separatists who sailed on the Mayflower are known as the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620, and established the Plymouth Colony. In that harsh winter, they didn't have enough time to build homes or grow crops. Nearly half of them died of starvation or diseases by the end of winter.
The next spring, Squanto, an English-speaking Native American from the Pawtuxet tribe, went over to the Pilgrim settlement to welcome them. A friendship blossomed between Squanto and the Pilgrims. He noticed that they had trouble surviving the winter, so he taught them how to grow corn, collect sap, catch eels, and much more. He also helped the Pilgrims make peace with the local Wampanoag tribe.
The harvest of 1621 turned out successful. After the food was distributed for winter, there was still extra food to spare. Delighted Pilgrim Governor William Bradford decided to have a celebration for a good harvest in mid-October. The Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag tribe to play games and celebrate with them. They had a feast at the end of the festivities that included a variety of foods, like venison and boiled pumpkin. The celebration lasted three days and is now called the "First Thanksgiving."
Most people nowadays think that the Thanksgiving feast of 1621 was the start of today's holiday. But Thanksgiving was not an official American holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday of November Thanksgiving.
Since then, Americans across the country have celebrated Thanksgiving every year with their family and friends.
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