The History of Thanksgiving I Oxford Open Learning

The History of Thanksgiving

512px-The_First_Thanksgiving_Jean_Louis_Gerome_Ferris The roots of the Thanksgiving celebration can be found in the arrival of   members of the Protestant English Separatist Church and a group of travellers from a London stock company (all of whom had been living in Holland before they set out), in the ‘New World’ of America in 1620.

It took these settlers, who became known as The Pilgrims, sixty-six days to travel the Atlantic Ocean on the Mayflower. Then, 101 men, women, and children intended to land where New York City is now located. However, stormy conditions forced them to cut their trip short and settle in the area known as Cape Cod.

Terribly underprepared for the conditions they were to encounter, the settlers who set up what was to become the Plymouth colony faced a terrible winter. Around forty six people from the original group had died by the following Autumn.

Prior to these new settlers landing on the East Coast of America, the area was inhabited by many Native American tribes, including the Wampanoag people. The native people knew the land well, and their leader, Squanto, helped the settlers to recover from their year of deprivation. He taught them how to grow corn and use fish to fertilize their fields. As a result, the following year brought a bountiful harvest.

Without the help of the Native Americans, the Pilgrims would not have made it through a second year in America. A feast was held to celebrate both the harvest and the two community’s co-operation. It was this feast that would later become the Thanksgiving festival Americans celebrate today.

The first national Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. However, many of the American colonies were against the idea, believing that the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a days’ holiday.

It wasn’t until after a long magazine campaign, by a woman called Sarah Josepha Hale, that the celebration began to gain popularity. Hale’s efforts eventually led to President Lincoln officially proclaiming the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday in 1863.

This year, Thanksgiving is celebrated on 28th November.


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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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