Short History Lesson
In 1620, 102 settlers set sail on the Mayflower from England. The "Saints", as they called themselves, had secured a charter to Virginia. After a long, stormy journey across the ocean, the settlers were blown off course and decided to settle near present-day Cape Cod, Massachusetts. They arrived in December 1620 and did not have time to build shelters. Most lived in sod houses. Some lived in holes in the ground covered by tents. Nearly half of the settlers died during the first winter.
In the Spring, the 53 surviving Pilgrims were surprised when an Indian named Samoset walked into their village and greeted them in English (learned from explorers along New England Coast). Samoset introduced the Pilgrims to Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoag Indians. They made a peace treaty and even agreed to defend each other against enemies. But the Indian who helped the Pilgrims the most was a Patuxet tribe member named Tisquantum (Squanto).
Squanto had lost his family to disease, so he decided to live with the Pilgrims and teach them how to survive. He also spoke more English than probably any other Native American alive. (He had been captured and taken to England where he learned English before eventually returning to America). Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant seeds for corn, beans, and pumpkins, how to fish for eels, how to use manure as fertilizer, different cooking methods, and he also acted as a guide and interpreter. The settlers believed that God had sent Squanto to them. If not for Squanto, it is likely that most of the Pilgrims would not have survived another year.
With the help of Squanto, the Pilgrims had a great harvest in 1621 and invited Massasoit and his immediate family to a Thanksgiving Dinner. Massasoit brought 90 braves with him. The Pilgrims were not prepared for such a large group. Massasoit sent some of his braves back and they returned with five deer and many other wild game. The feast lasted for 3 straight days.
Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving
The first Thanksgiving Proclamation was issued by President George Washington, months after his inauguration as president in 1789. It stated in part,
“Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"
But It was not until 1863, that Thanksgiving became an official holiday.
Abraham Lincoln signed an Executive Order after the Battle of Gettysburg making Thanksgiving a national holiday to be celebrated annually on the last Thursday of November. (Franklin Roosevelt later changed it to the 4th Thursday of each year.) Lincoln's Executive Order stated in part,
“I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, 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. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, 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, tranquility and Union.”