The Origins of Thanksgiving | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

The Origins of Thanksgiving

It's not What You Might Think

The Origins of Thanksgiving | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeA man takes pleasure in the carving of the Thanksgiving turkey, with other food items in the foreground and vending machines behind him.


A man takes pleasure in the carving of the Thanksgiving turkey, November 25, 1965, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee. View the original source document: WHI 11717

Few holidays seem as uniquely American as Thanksgiving. We all carry images in our heads of grandparents' over-flowing tables, grammar school classrooms decorated with paper turkeys and romanticized Pilgrims and Indians feasting together harmoniously at Plimoth Plantation.

Edward Winslow's Account

There are only two textual sources for the origin of Thanksgiving. The first is a letter by a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow included as chapter six of Governor William Bradford's "Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England..." printed in London in 1622. Winslow wrote to a friend back in England (modernized here):

"Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. 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 among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety 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. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

They did have reason to be thankful, after all. The colonists had arrived at the tip of Cape Cod just as winter set in towards the end of 1620. The volunteers who went in a small boat to find a suitable village site were entirely cased in ice at times. They nevertheless came upon Plymouth Harbor directly across Massachusetts Bay, where they quickly started building shelter. That first winter about half of them perished from exposure, disease or malnutrition. When spring finally came and they could start planting, their much-admired leader, John Carver, collapsed in the fields and died. With the help of local Indians they managed to raise, gather and harvest enough food to plant their little Utopia on a more solid, though still fragile, footing.

William Bradford's Version

EnlargeKindergarteners at Dudgeon School in Mrs. Virginia Price's class make a pumpkin pie.

Preparing for Thanksgiving

Kindergarteners at Dudgeon School in Mrs. Virginia Price's class make a pumpkin pie. Ready to add the egg is Nancy Olmstead, manning the beater is Julie Duckwitz, Marcia Kampen measures the pumpkin, while Larry Elliott spoons the pumpkin from the can and Mike Ivens measures the milk. November 23, 1952, Madison. View the original source document: WHI 34423

Twenty years later their governor, William Bradford, described the autumn of 1621 this way in his "History Of Plimoth Plantation." We've modernized the spelling here from his original manuscript, as first printed in 1898 and included in our American Journeys digital collection:

"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strength, and had all things in good plenty. As some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing about cod, & bass, & other fish, of which they took a good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want. And now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl, there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, &c."

That's all the evidence we have about the first Thanksgiving  two brief paragraphs.

On this slender foundation was erected a grand mythology about the value of hard work, nature's bounty, religious freedom, material prosperity and multicultural harmony. It makes one wonder where writers such as this 1930 Madison author got their facts.

At the time, Thanksgiving was presented in public discourse as a celebration of the nation's roots, as if the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1620 had been the first Americans. The mythologizers conveniently overlooked the French and Spanish at St. Augustine in 1565, the conquistadors who founded New Mexico in 1598, the English themselves at Jamestown in 1607, and the French founding of Quebec in 1608 — never mind thousands of years of American Indian history in North America.

Modern Celebrations

In recent decades Thanksgiving evolved away from this romanticized pseudo-history popular in our childhoods. True, it has become largely a commercial holiday  the start of the Christmas shopping season — rather than a time for gratitude and devotion. It has also become a day known for excessive self-indulgence, old-fashioned gender roles, televised football and somnolent uncles in armchairs. But at least we're honest about those customs, and don't have to idealize them into something more palatable.

And, more optimistically, Thanksgiving has become an annual occasion for generosity. The 30 days from Thanksgiving to Christmas are not just the peak retail season; they are also the peak season for charitable giving, for which we can all be thankful.

Learn More

See more images, essays, newspapers and records about Thanksgiving.