How Thanksgiving Started

A little Thanksgiving history lesson on the role pets played in the creation of our national holiday devoted to gratitude.

by sandy steele • More.com Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

If you've been reading my earlier blogs, then you know there's a chance my forebears go back to the Mayflower. Since my mom Sandy has been running around this week, like a chicken with its head cut-off, preparing a “Thanksgiving” dinner for friends and relatives, I thought I'd do a little research. Excuse the guillotine reference as it's probably over the top! However, what about the poor turkey?

The Mayflower ship came over to America in 1620 with 58 men, 18 women, 32 children and a few cats and dogs. The 90-foot long Mayflower wasn't designed to carry passengers and was originally headed to Virginia. So, for most of the voyage, everyone stayed below in the cold, damp hold causing illness and death. Then a terrible storm knocked the ship completely off course, and it landed in freezing Cape Cod, Massachusetts (instead of warm Virginia). It seemed like a bad omen. Finally on land, unfortunately many of these first settlers further died because they weren’t prepared for the extreme cold and complete lack of food and shelter. Somehow, the remaining survivors managed to last a year.

The reasons for their survival were dogs, cats, and Indians. The dogs chased away wolves and bears protecting the homes. The cats chased and ate the squirrels and chipmunks, which were eating their meager food supplies. Now, I love a squirrel chase as much as any dog, but to eat them....Ugh.

The Indians, today called Native Americans, graciously taught the settlers, how to fish the ubiquitous streams and plant the indigenous crops like corn, squash, and cabbage. Hence, these pious Pilgrims survived because of the combined help from their new gracious hosts and their old former house pets.

In November 1621, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans decided to have a feast celebrating the first successful harvest and named it “Thanksgiving.” The first Thanksgiving lasted a week. The meals consisted of duck, corn meal, deer meat, seafood, cabbage, onions, and squash. It seems that the turkey came much later. The Indian tribe called the “Wampanoag,” which meant “eastern peoples,” called the Pilgrims “coat people.” These two distinct human races, as different as Mars and Venus, decided to get along and help each other for mutually beneficial reasons. Compassion!

In the beginning and lasting hundreds of years, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different dates depending on which state you lived in. President Lincoln in 1863 decided all the states should recognize the same month, November, for Thanksgiving. Nearly 100 years later, in December 1941, President Roosevelt, with Congress's approval, officially declared that the fourth Thursday in November would be “Thanksgiving Day.” So America's “Thanksgiving” was created and helped along by cats and dogs, foreign English settlers and native Indians, a presidents and Congress — all working together for the good of their Country. Gee, what a concept!

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