A History of Thanksgiving

The Evolution of a Time-Honored Tradition

Thanksgiving, a time for families and friends to gather, share a meal, and express gratitude for the blessings in their lives, is celebrated every fourth Thursday in November in the United States. Thanksgiving has evolved and is celebrated in diverse ways by different communities and cultures, but the history of the holiday is complex and nuanced.

The story of Thanksgiving, first held in 1621, is one of the Pilgrims’ arrival on the continent, struggle to survive, and interactions with the Wampanoag people. Symbolizing cooperation and gratitude, the modern Thanksgiving holiday has evolved beyond its historical origins and encompasses a broader sense of thankfulness.

The Pilgrims established Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 on land inhabited by the Wampanoag, American Indians native to the area. That winter was brutal, with nearly half of the original settlers dying because they were unfamiliar with the new environment in which they settled.

Squanto, a member of Wampanoag Nation, played a crucial role in the Pilgrims’ survival. Squanto was kidnapped to Europe in 1614 and sold into slavery, ultimately ending up in England where he learned the English language. He escaped, and in 1619, he serendipitously returned to Massachusetts. Squanto helped the Pilgrims navigate and interact with their new environment. He taught them to fish and cultivate staple crops, and he helped establish peaceful relations as a liaison between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people.

The first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest. Although not definitively known, the menu likely included corn, beans and squash (the “Three Sisters”), along with venison, fish, fruits and nuts.

This story of resilience and adaptation is a reminder of the importance of human connection and cooperation, even in the face of adversity. Squanto’s contributions to the early success and survival of the Pilgrims leave an enduring legacy in American history still celebrated today.

Writer Rebecca Smart is proud to serve Dripping Springs ISD as a teacher of AP US History and as a Social Studies Instructional Coach at Dripping Springs High School. She currently serves as a civics educator, consultant, and trainer for Texas Law-Related Education, and is also a member of the National Constitution Center Teacher Advisory Council and iCivics Educator Network. The mom of a current DSHS senior, Rebecca lives with her husband, Scott, and daughter, Caroline, in Dripping Springs.

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