There’s no holiday that’s more quintessentially American than Thanksgiving. Learn how it has evolved from its religious roots as Spanish and English days of feasting and prayer to become the football-watching, parade-marching, gut-stuffing event it is today.
1541: Spanish Explorers Hold a Feast
English settlers weren’t the first to celebrate a thanksgiving feast on American soil. According to the Texas Society Daughters of the American Colonists, the very first thanksgiving was observed by Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Accompanied by 1,500 men in full armor, Coronado left Mexico City in 1540 and marched north in search of gold. As the company camped in Palo Duro Canyon in 1541, Padre Fray Juan de Padilla called for a feast of prayer and thanksgiving, beating out the Plymouth Thanksgiving by 79 years.
1598: A Second Early Feast Among Spanish
A second Texas town claims to have been the real site of the first Thanksgiving in America. In 1598, a wealthy Spanish dignitary named Juan de Oñate was granted lands among the Pueblo Indians in the American Southwest. He decided to blaze a new path directly across the Chihuahua Desert to reach the Rio Grande. Oñate’s party of 500 soldiers, women and children barely survived the harrowing journey, nearly dying of thirst and exhaustion when they reached the river. (Two horses reportedly drank so much water that their stomachs burst.)
After 10 days of rest and recuperation near modern-day San Elizario, Texas, Oñate ordered a feast of thanksgiving, which one of his men described in his journal: "We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before…We were happy that our trials were over; as happy as were the passengers in the Ark when they saw the dove returning with the olive branch in his beak, bringing tidings that the deluge had subsided."
August 9, 1607: Colonists, Native Americans Feast in Maine
There are also competing claims as to what was the first feast of thanksgiving actually shared with Native Americans. In 1607, English colonists at Fort St. George assembled for a harvest feast and prayer meeting with the Abenaki Indians of Maine.
But some historians claim that the Spanish founders of St. Augustine, Florida shared a festive meal with the native Timucuan people when their ships came ashore way back in 1565.
READ MORE: Did Florida Host the First Thanksgiving?
November 1621: The Plymouth Feast
According to American tradition, this is when Thanksgiving really began. Archival evidence is slim, but according to a letter from Plymouth colonist Edward Winslow dated December 11, 1621, the colonists wanted to celebrate their first good crop of corn and barley grown with generous assistance from the native Wampanoag Indians.
So the English colonists sent out four men to kill “as much fowl” as they could in one day, and invited King Massasoit and 90 of his men “so we might after a more special manner rejoice together.” The king brought five deer to the three-day party, which 19th-century New Englanders would later promote as the origin of modern Thanksgiving.
READ MORE: Who Was at the First Thanksgiving?
November 23, 1775: Boston Patriots Call for Thanksgiving
In the run-up to the Revolutionary War, a group of Boston patriots published a pointedly anti-British proclamation for a “Day of public Thanksgiving” throughout the Massachusetts Colony to be held November 23, 1775:
“That such a Band of Union, founded upon the best Principles, unites the American Colonies; That our Rights and Priviledges . . . are so far preserved to us, notwithstanding all the Attempts of our barbarous Enemies to deprive us of them. And to offer up humble and fervent Prayers to Almighty GOD, for the whole British Empire; especially for the UNITED AMERICAN COLONIES."
READ MORE: Who Were the Sons of Liberty?
December 18, 1777: 13 Colonies Celebrate a Thanksgiving
To celebrate the victory of American Continental forces over the British in the Battle of Saratoga, commander-in-chief George Washington called for Thursday, December 18 to be set aside for “Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise.” It was the first time that all 13 colonies celebrated a day of thanksgiving in unison.
READ MORE: The Battle of Saratoga
November 26, 1789: George Washington Calls for Day of Thanksgiving
George Washington, now serving as the first President of the United States, took Congress’s recommendation to call for a national day of thanksgiving and prayer in gratitude for the end of the Revolutionary War. Washington observed the holiday by attending church and then donating money and food to prisoners and debtors in New York City jails.
November 1846: Sarah Josepha Hale Lobbies for National Holiday
Sarah Josepha Hale, who started championing a national Thanksgiving holiday in 1827 as the editor of Gody’s Lady’s Book, began her 17-year letter-writing campaign in 1846 to convince American presidents that it was time to make Thanksgiving official.
September 28, 1863: 'Mother of Thanksgiving' Appeals to Lincoln
Hale, now 74 years old, penned an impassioned plea to President Abraham Lincoln to set aside a specific day for annual Thanksgiving celebrations nationwide. "It now needs National recognition and authoritive fixation, only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution." Hale wrote a similar letter to Secretary of State William Seward, who may have been the one to convince Lincoln it was a good idea.
October 3, 1863: Lincoln Proclaims Thanksgiving Holiday
To a country torn apart by the Civil War, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving Day, according to Hale’s longstanding wish.
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States… to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” read the proclamation, written by Seward, “and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”
November 30, 1876: First Thanksgiving Football Game
The very first Thanksgiving football game was played between Princeton and Yale in 1876. American football was in its infancy, but the sport and the Thanksgiving tradition quickly caught on. By 1893, 40,000 spectators showed up to watch the Princeton-Yale Thanksgiving game in New York’s Manhattan Field.
November 27, 1924: First Macy's Parade
Originally called the “Christmas Parade,” Macy’s department store in New York City launched its first-ever parade on Thanksgiving Day, 1924. The six-mile parade route featured live elephants and camels from the Central Park Zoo. The animals were replaced by oversized rubber balloons in 1927.
READ MORE: The First Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
November 23, 1939 - FDR Moves the Date
In 1939, Thanksgiving was set to fall on November 30, leaving only 24 shopping days until Christmas. Fearing that the shortened Christmas season would impact the economy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order moving it a week earlier to November 23. Critics called it “Franksgiving” and Congress officially moved the holiday back to its current place in 1941.
READ MORE: Thanksgiving History Facts and Trivia
November 19, 1963: First Turkey Pardon
While claims have been made that Abraham Lincoln or Harry Truman were the first presidents to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey, the credit belongs to John F. Kennedy, who spared the life of a 55-pound gobbler in 1963. “We’ll just let this one grow,” joked JFK. “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.” The impromptu turkey reprieve was just days before Kennedy’s fateful trip to Dallas.
While Kennedy was the first to send a gift turkey back to the farm, it was President George W. Bush in 1989 who began the annual White House tradition of officially pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey.
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