Painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe
Brush up on your understanding of the roots of Thanksgiving Day. Does anything here surprise you?
The Cast of Characters, Major and Minor Roles
King James I … he’d been persecuting the Separatists because they wanted to leave the Church of England.
Separatists … not to be confused with the staid and drab Puritans, who didn’t arrive in the New World until ten years later.
Christopher Jones … captain, or “master,” of the Mayflower and its crew.
Pilgrims … the term first meant the Separatists because of their wanderings in search of religious freedom, but today it’s applied to everyone on the Mayflower.
William Brewster … leader of the group of Separatists who sailed on the Mayflower.
The “strangers” … others who joined the Separatists on the Mayflower.
Oceanus … the baby boy born to Stephen and Elizabeth Hopkins during the voyage.
John Carver … first elected governor of the Plymouth colony.
Miles Standish … led an exploration party onshore before the Pilgrims disembarked.
Samoset … native American of the Wampanoag tribe who brought Squanto to help the Pilgrims.
Squanto … his perfect English and knowledge of fishing, planting, hunting, and trapping saved the Pilgrims who had survived the first harsh winter.
Massasoit … chief of the Wampanoag tribe, who signed a peace treating with the Pilgrims.
William Bradford … the colony’s second governor, who instituted the three-day feast we call the first Thanksgiving in order to acknowledge the blessings of God.
A Thanksgiving Time Line
1524-1614. European explorers visited the Cape Cod area.
1611-1614. A total of 32 native men were captured and kidnapped to be sold as slaves. Among them was Tisquantum (Squanto), who went first to Spain and then to England, where he learned the English language.
1616-1620. European diseases, for which the native people had no immunity, hit the northeast. So many from Squanto’s village of Patuxet died that the village was abandoned.
1618. Squanto came back to his homeland and discovered his village was gone.
September 6, 1620. Just over 100 men, women, and children—including a group of English Separatists—set out from Holland on the Mayflower, a wooden cargo ship no more than 150 feet long. Holland offered them freedom of religion but they feared the effects of living in a materialistic culture. Although they intended to sail to the Hudson Bay area, a storm blew them off course during their difficult, unpleasant 66-day journey. They reached land on November 11, 1620.
December 11, 1620. The Mayflower anchored at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. The travelers went ashore on December 16. All around them looked like wilderness, but it was actually the lands of Patuxet, Squanto’s abandoned village.
Winter, 1621. The Pilgrims experienced severe sickness, starvation, and exposure. Nearly half of the Mayflower settlers died.
March 16, 1621. Samoset visited the colony. Soon after, he brought Squanto, who agreed to live with the colonists and teach them how to survive in his homeland. The Wampanoag chief Massasoit and John Carver, the English governor, formed an alliance.
Early fall, 1621. The colony had a successful harvest. William Bradford, then the governor, called for a feast to celebrate and to acknowledge God’s blessing. The feast might have taken place in October. Some say the colonists invited some Wampanoags to join them; others say the native Americans came to investigate the gunfire they heard as part of the Pilgrims’ festivities. However it happened, 90 Wampanoags, including Massasoit, ended up joining the three-day celebration and provided five deer for the meals.
November 1, 1777. The Continental Congress called for the first national day of Thanksgiving on December 18 to commemorate victory over the British at the battle of Saratoga.
October 3, 1789. President Washington proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving for the United States Constitution.
1846. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, began to campaign for an annual Thanksgiving holiday.
1863. President Lincoln called for two national days of thanksgiving, one in August after the battle of Gettysburg, and one in November to give thanks for “the blessings of the fruitful field.” The idea of an annual day of thanksgiving caught on.
November 26, 1941. President Roosevelt signed a bill making the fourth Thursday in November our national Thanksgiving Day.