The roots of Thanksgiving

Published 8:00 am Thursday, November 23, 2023

By Steve Roark

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Thanksgiving is one of the high holidays of the US, involving traditions of being with family, eating a bountiful meal of traditional foods, and hopefully taking time to give thanks for what we have been given. You know the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving involving Pilgrims, Native Americans, feasting and all that, but history is always good to review occasionally, as you often learn something new.

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American Thanksgiving may have its roots in Mother England, where harvest-home ceremonies were common. Here certain days in the autumn were reserved to thank God for blessing the people with good harvests. The first recorded observance of Thanksgiving in America was not done by the Pilgrims, and did not involve any feasting, but was entirely religious in nature. On Dec. 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers landed at a spot on the James River near present day Charles City, Virginia. The charter of this group required that the day of their arrival be observed as a Day of Thanksgiving to God.

Our modern traditions of Thanksgiving do have roots with the Pilgrims, however. So who were these guys? A group of people set sail from Plymouth England in September of 1620 on the Mayflower. There were 102 passengers, of whom less than half were known as Separatists, or Saints, people who wanted complete separation from the Church of England. The rest were called the “Strangers”, hired men, servants, and others who wanted to start a new life in the New World. When land was sighted the two groups met and formulated the Mayflower Compact, an agreement that assured equality between them. The passengers as a group became known as the Pilgrims, but not until around 1840. Someone pointed out that William Bradford, leader of the Plymouth colony, had once noted that the Saints left England, which he said was a good and pleasant place, but “they (the Saints) knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits”.

The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620. The harsh Massachusetts winter killed around half of the original 102; the survivors included only four adult women and almost 40% children. In the spring of 1621, the Pilgrims were taken under the wing of the nearby Wampanoag tribe, and taught to plant corn, pumpkins and beans, and how to hunt and fish local game. In early autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims arranged a harvest festival to recognize the help given by the natives, and to give thanks for having survived. The festival lasted three days. Wild game and fish of all sorts was served, no doubt including turkey, a plentiful game bird. The term “turkey” by the way was used by the Pilgrims to mean any type of wild fowl. Vegetables included berries, boiled pumpkin, watercress, leeks, dried fruit, wild plums and cornbread. The celebration was a onetime event, and it was 55 years before another Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed.

Our modern Thanksgiving is chock full of enjoyable activities that include family, food and football. But remember to take time to look up and reflect on where it all comes from throughout our lives. Remember to give thanks to the Giver.

Steve Roark is a volunteer at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.