History of Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe. Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal. Public Domain.

[San Juan Silver Stage | November 2021 | Kathryn R. Burke 

As traditions go, this one has more than one story about how, where, and when it got started. Wherever it began, the first celebration was likely a century before the Mayflower dropped anchor off the east coast. It is also interesting to note that during times of conflict—and our society has been continually marred by them—people continue to celebrate our one and only true American holiday: Thanksgiving Day.

1541. Texas. An historical marker erected by the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists outside Canyon, Texas, states that Father Juan de Padilla conducted a Thanksgiving service there in May 1541 for an army of 1,500 accompanying Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.

1565. Florida. Another (largely unsubstantiated) historical account suggests that 800 Spanish settlers in St. Augustine celebrated with the native Timucuan people in 1565. The meal likely consisted of (for the Indians) alligator, bear, wild turkey, venison, tortoise, and seafood. For the Europeans, it would have been biscuits and a rich garbanzo and pork stew washed down with lots of red wine.


1621. Massachusetts. The most famous celebration, again between Native peoples and European settlers, and the one most often acted out by school children, is reported to have taken place in the late fall of 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where over 90 Wampanoag warriors joined 22 settlers (all but four of them men) in a three-day feast. They likely ate deer and vegetables, including pumpkin. (The paucity of women was due to the fact that over 75 percent of the women and children had perished on the passage.)

1777-1789. Revolutionary War. George Washington called for a national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November in 1777 to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution. The war was responsible for approximately 25,000 deaths*, which included 8,000 soldiers plus others who died of disease or as a result of the war.

1841. Pilgrims. The first time anyone claimed that the Pilgrims hosted the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

1863. Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln declared the annual Thanksgiving celebration to be on the final Thursday in November and to celebrate “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” during the Civil War, which accounted for approximately 655,204* deaths (from conflict and resulting from related disease.)

1876. Football. The first Thanksgiving football game was a college match between Yale and Princeton. Today, the NFL holds three Thanksgiving games each November, two of which always feature the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys.

1917-1918. World War I. 116,516* deaths (including conflict and the  resulting post-combat injuries and disease). There was no Thanksgiving for overseas troops.

1918. Spanish Flu. Because of the pandemic, indoor public gatherings were prohibited. Churches, schools, and public buildings were closed, although outdoor celebrations were allowed (but limited due to weather conditions). On September 28, 1918, two months before Thanksgiving, a Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia prompted a huge outbreak of Spanish flu in the city. By the time the pandemic ended, an estimated 20 to 50 million people were dead worldwide!

1924. First Macy’s Parade. The department store announced its very first big Christmas Parade two weeks before Thanksgiving to celebrate the expansion of its Herald Square superstore in New York City.

1930s. Depression. Food prices were inflated during the Depression, so many people cooked at home, culminating in an average cost of $5.50 to feed a family of six. Compare that to what it costs today!

1939. Franksgiving. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the date back a week to allow for a long Christmas shopping season. It was an unpopular move, called “Franksgiving” by traditionalists and political rivals. Half of the 48 states did not accept the change.

1941-1945. World War II. Congress moved Thanksgiving back to the fourth Thursday of November. An estimated 3 percent of the world’s population, or 75-85 million people, perished, including 405,399* U.S. troops.

1943. Freedom From Want. Norman Rockwell’s famous family portrait of Thanksgiving Dinner, Freedom from Want, was considered a political statement.

1950-53 Korean Conflict. Turkey and mashed potatoes were served to troops in the field on three consecutive Thanksgivings before the conflict, which killed 36,574 troops*, ended.

1968. Viet Nam War. The American military provided troops with hot, traditional Thanksgiving dinners, some flown by helicopter to remote areas. Total deaths of US troops are tabulated at 58.209*.

1989. Pardon the Turkey. The annual White House tradition officially started with George H.W. Bush in 1989.

2008. Great Recession. The economic downturn made Thanksgiving and holiday shopping difficult and meant cutbacks, but families still celebrated.

2021. Covid. Celebrating today looks a lot different from the traditional holiday when families gather, traveling from far and near to join together. As Covid continues to spread voraciously, many fear to gather. Or, when they do, gather carefully and in small groups. Many fear travel, as some parts of the country experience higher Covid case and death rates. Large public Thanksgiving dinners are now mostly take-out only. To date, over 261,000,000 cases have been reported and the disease has caused 5,200,000 deaths. The United States leads in both cases and deaths and the count is rising daily. Much like 2020, the year Covid took root,  Thanksgiving 2021 still means taking precautions and devising creative ways to celebrate  [related story] without spreading this virulent and highly contagious disease.