Sometime between September 21 and November 11, 1621, 53 English men, women and children were joined by some 90 native American tribesmen in a feast to give thanks for their first harvest in their new home, the Plymouth Colony in today’s Massachusetts.
They had much to be thankful for. Just one year earlier, in mid-November 1620, they were part of a group of 102 colonists and 30 crew who reached the shores of North America aboard a ship named Mayflower. They were Puritans, religious separatists who were considered to be radicals, and therefore illegal by the government of England, their home country.
Tired of persecution in Europe, they were headed for the Colony of Virginia. But the winter weather forced them to drop anchor on Cape Cod, over 350 kilometers [220 miles] north east of their chosen destination.
Nonetheless, the hopeful colonists decided to settle on the mainland just across bay from their original anchorage on Cape Cod and began to set up a community wherein they could live according to their own religious beliefs.
That first year was hard and came close to ending the colony before it took root. Within a year, nearly half of the 102 colonists were dead due to starvation, disease and the harsh weather conditions. But the summer brought a good harvest, and in autumn, 22 men, 4 women, 9 adolescent boys, 5 adolescent girls and 13 young children sat down to celebrate with their native Wampanoag neighbors.
Massachusetts was not the first to claim that their state was the first to celebrate Thanksgiving. Numerous historical documents indicate that Spanish explorers and other English Colonists celebrated religious services of thanksgiving in Florida, Texas, Maine, and Virginia long before 1620. However, these were isolated local celebrations that did not survive the test of time.
So, thanks to vigorous lobbying by the State of Massachusetts, modern Thanksgiving was first officially established in all states in 1863, by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. The observance was moved to the fourth week in November by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Thanksgiving began as a prayer of gratitude by emigrants who, if not for the support of their native neighbors, would most likely have not survived their first year in North America. Today, although Thanksgiving is traditionally a gatherings of family and friends, the threat to life and health by the Covid-19 pandemic will see many celebrate home alone, once again offering their gratitude for a chance at a bright future.