A Brief American Thanksgiving History

Scott Harris

Recognizing the current state of affairs in the world and the continuing self-destruction of our own nation, it’s hard for many people to think of thankfulness beyond the cynical gratitude of not being in the shoes of someone else who is in a worse position. And since it can no longer be assumed that most Americans even know the rudimentary aspects of their own history, it’s good to examine the origins and examples set in the American Thanksgiving tradition.

The first recorded Thanksgiving worship service in what is now the US was in 1541 by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in Palo-Duro Canyon (in what is now the Texas Panhandle). French Huguenots held a service in 1564 on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina. Early English colonists in Virginia also recorded worship services of thanksgiving, such as the one in 1607 at Cape Henry and on December 4, 1619 at Berkley Plantation on the James River. However, it was the record of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620-1621 that laid the foundation of our American Thanksgiving tradition. The example of the Pilgrims is still a good model to follow in current times.

Pilgrim Origins

When Henry VIII broke away from Rome to establish himself as head of the Church of England in 1536, it opened a door for the English Reformation even though that church remained largely Roman Catholic in its doctrine and practices. Roman Catholic Queen Mary brought great persecution against Protestants during her reign (1547-1558). Many who had fled to the Continent returned during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603) and helped develop a movement to reorganize it according to the Reformer’s framework. They were called Puritans. Others who agreed with the Puritan reformers theologically but could not in good conscience remain in the Church of England formed independent congregations and were called Separatists, or non-conformists. They were often persecuted by the authorities. Richard Clyfton and William Brewster organized such a Separatist congregation at Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. This group was later called “the Pilgrims” because of their many journeys fleeing persecution.

An increase in persecution occurred under King James I (1603-1625). William Bradford wrote about this in his retrospective history, Of Plymouth Plantation. He says that they“were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken and clapped upon in prison, others had their houses beset and watched night and day, and hardly escaped their hands; and the most were fain to flee and leave their houses and habitations, and the means of their livelihood.” The people of the church “notwithstanding all the diligence and malice of their adversaries, they seeing they could not longer continue in that condition, they resolved to get over into Holland as they could, Which was in the year 1607 and 1608.” Getting to Holland proved to be difficult, as several groups striving to flee were swindled or stranded resulting in some losing all their goods, others being separated from their families, and those left in England were jailed.

In Leyden, Holland

Many did make it to Holland, the church eventually settled in Leyden, and by 1620 it numbered between 400 and 500 congregants. It would have been more, but as immigrants, life was hard. Difficulties related to language, culture, and working low-end jobs of physical labor took a toll. These factors kept many from immigrating to join them and caused others to leave. Bradford writes, “Yea, some preferred and chose the prisons in England rather than this liberty in Holland with these afflictions.” The older aged before their time and the youth became too bowed and decrepit to find better jobs. The temptations of the Dutch culture were also taking a toll on their youth. There was also a strong missionary desire among some to lay a foundation for propagating the gospel in remote parts of the world. To these factors was added the fact that the twelve-year truce with Spain was ending and the beating of drums and preparation for war had already started. If the war was lost to the Spanish, the Dutch Low Country would come under the cruelties of a Roman Catholic authority.

These many factors led to the decision that a portion of the church would venture to establish a colony in the Americas, despite the great risks and hardships that would have to be endured to do so. Others could then follow. The pursuit of these ideas began in 1617, but it was not until 1620 that the needed investors were secured and contracts were made.

Pilgrim Voyages

On July 22, 1620, a portion of the group from Holland left on the Speedwell for Southhampton, England where others and the larger ship, Mayflower, would join them. They were swindled when their investors changed the terms of the contracts, and the port fees were not paid, forcing them to sell off much-needed cargo. This also delayed their departure until August 5. By August 8, the Speedwell was leaking, which forced the ships to put into port at Dartmouth for repairs which were completed on August 22. The ships sailed the next day.

By August 25, the Speedwell was leaking again, which later turned out to be sabotage by the crew, and the ships returned to Plymouth. The Speedwell had to be abandoned, which left them with fewer people and supplies for the colony and without a ship that would stay in the colony, helping to establish it. The Mayflower finally left on September 6 with 102 passengers and 25 crew.

The eight-week trip took over nine as the Mayflower was battered by Autumn storms which had also cracked the ship’s main beam which was then ingeniously fixed by the use of a “great iron screw (likely either a construction tool or part of their printing press). The Mayflower stayed afloat and sailed on despite the storms that left them wet and cold. Amazingly, in the face of all the hazards, only one profane crew member, and one Pilgrim, young William Button, had died in the crossing. A baby, Oceanus, was also born.

Pilgrims at Cape Cod

Land was sighted on November 6, but they were far north of where they had planned to be. Efforts to sail south proved to be too dangerous, so it was decided they would need to settle somewhere in the Cape Cod area. The Mayflower Compact was drawn up as a governing document for the independent colony and signed on November 11. After a month of exploring, a suitable place for a settlement was finally found on December 11 at a place they named Plymouth. Seven Pilgrims had died in the harbor by then, and two more by December 25, the time construction had begun for a common storehouse. Weather and accidents would hinder their settlement efforts, and several more would die before they could inhabit their partially completed buildings on shore.

The Pilgrims endured a harsh Winter, scarce food, sickness, and death, yet were still able to establish a small settlement in Plymouth. By the first signs of spring in March, Bradford wrote, “the Spring now approaching, it pleased God the mortalitie begane to cease amongst them, and the sick and lame recovered apace, which put as it were new life into them; though they had borne their sadd affliction with much patience & contentednes.”  Forty-seven out of the 102 that had left England that previous September were now dead. Almost half of the Mayflower’s crew of 50 had also died. In the next few months, several more would die including Governor John Carver.

The coming summer would have its own challenges, as they developed relations with the surrounding Indian tribes, planted and harvested their first crops, and made preparations to survive the coming winter. All the hardships, suffering, and death the Pilgrims had endured would merely have been a tale of woe if it had not been for their continued trust in God’s goodness, enabling them to overcome trial with hope for eternity. Where natural men see only troubles, trials, and oppression, the godly also see mercy, grace, and love. The Pilgrims who settled Plymouth understood God’s character and they believed His promises.  Nothing could separate them from the love of God, and He was working all things together for good for them whether they understood how at the moment or not (Romans 8:28, 38-39).

Providence & Miracles 

The title of Jonathan King’s book, The Mayflower Miracle” is a fitting description of the story of the Pilgrims and the establishment of Plymouth Colony. He explains, “They were the ‘wrong’ sort of people to create the settlement and generally made a mess of it… It was a miracle that these simple and disorganized country folk overcame the obstacles that fell in their path… no other group could ever have had the tenacity and good fortune to overcome them. Perhaps no other group would ever have been prepared to sacrifice half their number to achieve their goals either.” What King calls “good fortune” is God’s intervention and providence.

The persecution in England and Holland deepened their faith. The hardships caused those controlled by fear or selfishness to back out of being part of the colony. While some exploited them, others helped them. Their gifted leaders not only had the vision for a future far beyond mere survival, but the skills to inspire others to sacrifice in the pursuit of that vision. They were creative in finding solutions using what meager supplies they had. John Howland fell overboard, but managed to grab a trailing rope, was seen, and hauled back aboard. The blasphemous sailor who early in the voyage was causing grief and contention died suddenly of an unknown illness. The storms pushed them north to a location that allowed them to set up an independent colony. The spot they finally chose to settle was the only location that would not have been attacked and destroyed by local Indians because the Patuxet tribe that had lived there had died off from a plague of smallpox only a few years before.

In mid-March, 1621, Samoset, a Pemaquid Indian from Maine who spoke English, introduced himself to the Pilgrims and became a friend and liaison to the local Chief Massasoit. This enabled friendly relationships between the Pilgrims and local natives to develop.

He also introduced Squanto, a Patuxet who had been in England when smallpox decimated his tribe and had only returned the year before. He also spoke English taught the Pilgrims how to plant local crops and catch fish with traps.


Edward Winslow’s December 1621 printed in Mourt’s Relation describes their “first thanksgiving” as follows: “Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might after a more special manner to rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And they went out and killed five deer which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor and upon the Captain and others.”

Bradford also notes this feast and the good harvest that would sustain them through the winter along with another entry that in mid-November, the Fortune arrived unexpectedly with thirty-six more people for the colony.  Bradford comments, “The plantation was glad of this addition of strength, but could have wished that many of them had been of better condition, and all of them better furnished with provisions. But that could not be now be helped.” The new arrivals were without food and had inadequate bedding, clothing, and equipment. The Fortune did not bring “relief” to the colony, but those on it were relieved to get off it. The colony would be hungry in the coming winter, but they would not be starving, so there was still cause for rejoicing.

The focus is usually on the celebration and feasting held in mid-Autumn of 1621 as proof of their thanksgiving to God for His provision for them. But the real proof was that Sunday after Sunday throughout even the worst of times they gathered to publicly thank God for what He had done and petition Him for His grace and mercy. That is a godly heart of thanksgiving. That is an example worthy of emulation. That is the heart that every Christian should strive to develop as they go through life’s trials and tribulations.

James 1:2–4 – Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 – In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

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