The celebration of Thanksgiving in America was probably derived from the harvest-home ceremonies originally held in England. These were days reserved to thank God for plentiful crops and a bountiful harvest. Accordingly, this holiday still takes place late in the Fall Season, after crops have been gathered. Most recently, Thanksgiving Day in the United States is usually a family affair, complete with sumptuous dinners and happy reunions; however, it is also traditionally a time for serious religious contemplation, church services and prayer.

The first observance of Thanksgiving in America was entirely religious in nature and involved no form of feasting. On December 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation on the James River...a location now known as Charles City, Virginia. The charter of the group required that the day of arrival be observed as a Day of Thanksgiving to God.

The first Thanksgiving in the New England area was celebrated in 1621, a little less than a year after the Plymouth colonists had settled in America. Popularly known as the Pilgrims, they had set sail from Plymouth, England on a ship called the Mayflower on September 6, 1620. They were fortune hunters, bound for the resourceful 'New World'. The Mayflower was a small ship crowded with men, women and children, besides the sailors on board.  Aboard were passengers comprising the 'separatists', who called themselves the "Saints",  and others, whom the
 separatists called the "Strangers". 

After land was sighted in November following 66 days of a lethal voyage, a meeting was held and an agreement of truce was worked out between the Saints and Strangers. It was called the Mayflower Compact. The agreement guaranteed equality among the members of the two groups. They merged together to be recognized as the "Pilgrims." They elected John Carver as their first governor.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Plymouth Rock was not the site of the original colony. When the Pilgrims landed there on December 11, 1620 in search of fresh provisions, they were greeted with hostility by the natives in the immediate vicinity and put back out to sea almost at once. A little further south, they came across Cape Cod, a much more favorable anchorage than Plymouth had proved to be and a native population which was more cordial in nature. Weary from their voyage and in no mood to hunt down the site mandated by their charter (which was considerably further down the coast and somewhere within the limits of the original grant of the Virginia Company of Plymouth), the Pilgrims decided to establish their colony within this friendly territory.

That initial harsh Massachusetts winter killed approximately one-half of the original 102 colonists. In the following Spring of 1621, the Indians, led by two braves named Samoset (of the Wampanoag Tribe) and Squanto (of the Patuxtet Tribe), taught the survivors how to plant corn (called "maize" by the natives) and how to catch alewives (a variety of the herring family) in order that the fish might be used as a fertilizer to growing pumpkins, beans and other crops. Samsoset and Squanto also instructed the Pilgrims in the arts of hunting and angling. By that Summer, despite poor crops of peas, wheat and barley, a good corn yield was expected and the pumpkin crop was bountiful. In early Autumn, to recognize the help afforded the colonists by the Indians and to give thanks for having survivied, Governor William Bradford arranged for a harvest festival. Four men were sent "fowling" after ducks and geese. Turkey may or may not have been a part of the forthcoming meal since the term "turkey" was used by the Pilgrims to mean any type of wild fowl.

The festival lasted three days. Massasoit, local sachem or chief of the Wampanoag, together with 90 Indians from the various Eastern Woodlands Tribes, participated in the ceremony. There can be little doubt that the majority of the feast was most likely furnished by the indigenous population. It is certain that they provided venison. The remainder of the meal, eaten outdoors around large tables, also probably included fish, berries, boiled pumpkin, watercress, leeks, lobster, dried fruit, clams, wild plums and cornbread. The celebration of this first New England Thanksgiving is believed to have taken place sometime between September 21 and November 9.

The event, however, was a one-time celebration. It was not repeated the following year, nor was it intended to be an annual festival. It was not until 55 years later than another Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed, when the Governing Council of Charlestown, Massachusetts convened on June 20, 1676 to weigh how to best express thanks for the good fortune that had secured the establishment of their community. By unanimous vote, Edward Rawson (the Clerk of the Council) was instructed to announce June 29 as a Day of Thanksgiving. Yet again, this proved to be only a one-time event. 

The story of  Thanksgiving continues in "How it became a National Holiday?"

Thanksgiving Index