Embarkation of the Pilgrim Father

What is the origin of the first Thanksgiving?

In the fall of 1620, a group of 102 men, women and children—now referred to as the Pilgrims—left Plymouth, England aboard the Mayflower and set sail for the New World to find religious freedom.

After 66 days at sea, they finally landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. They had a rough first winter living aboard the ship as they had no other shelter—they lost half their passengers to the elements, as well as to scurvy and other contagious diseases.

In spring of 1621, the Pilgrims were able to move ashore to start establishing a settlement. Soon after moving to land, they were surprisingly greeted in English by two Indians, one a member of the Abenaki tribe and Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe. Squanto had been previously taken into slavery to England where he learned the language, but was able to escape and make his way back to America.

Squanto played a pivotal role in the Pilgrim’s survival. He taught them how to grow corn, extract sap from maple trees, fish in nearby rivers and streams, and pick safe plants to eat. Squanto also helped the Pilgrims nurture a relationship with the Wampanoag tribe—an alliance that lasted more than 50 years.

By the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims, or Plymouth colonists, and the Wampanoag Indians were celebrating their fruitful harvest. They shared a three-day feast, offering thanks for the successful growing season—a festival that is now remembered as the “first Thanksgiving.”

A feast of thanksgiving was celebrated off and on for two centuries until finally in 1863, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day a federal holiday on the last Thursday of November (find out how it ended up on the fourth Thursday of November here.)

Infographic: Thanksgiving through the decades>>