What are the origins of Thanksgiving?

I'd stuffed many a turkey before I really understood Thanksgiving. Oh sure, I knew we were supposed to be thankful, and once I became a Christian I knew who we were thanking. But the Thanksgiving story is more than just the tale of Pilgrims and Indians. It's a portrait of God's hand in bringing people together to accomplish a specific purpose.

In the early 1600s the Wampanoag (Wam-pa-NO-ag) Native Americans inhabited the coast of what we now call New England. They raised crops, lived close to the ocean in summer for seafood, and moved inland in winter to set up hunting camps. Their encounters with Europeans over the years were mostly friendly. But there was one exception: In 1614 Captain Thomas Hunt captured several Wampanoag, along with a Patuxet Native American named Squanto, to be sold into slavery in Spain. A Spanish monk purchased Squanto's freedom, taught him Spanish, introduced him to Jesus Christ and sent him to England. In 1619, Squanto returned to his native land, only to find that his tribe had been wiped out by an epidemic. Thereafter he made his home with the Wampanoag.

Meanwhile, in 1608, a British group called Separatists fled to Leyden, Holland. There they found religious freedom, but also poverty, grueling work hours, and a secular culture that threatened to undo the values they had carefully instilled in their children. In 1620, they sold all their belongings to help finance their journey to America. On the Mayflower's voyage, the Separatists were joined by another group of people bound for America. They called these people Strangers. The two groups, 102 people altogether, were called Pilgrims.

Their journey lasted nine weeks. In one of those divine "accidents" that change the course of history, the ship lost its course and landed far north of its destination at what we now know as Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Once outside the territory covered by the King's Charter, the Pilgrims became responsible for their own government, and so they wrote a set of laws called The Mayflower Compact. On December 21, 1620, they began their new life at the place they named Plymouth.

The winter was devastating. Wind whipped through their settlement and sleet and snow chilled them to the bone. Half of the Pilgrims died. But the Separatists clung to their faith; not one person chose to return to England when the Mayflower made her return voyage.

Spring brought unexpected relief—the help of Squanto. He taught them how to grow corn, use fertilizer, stalk deer, and catch fish. William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth, wrote that Squanto was "a special instrument sent of God for good beyond our expectations." And so their first harvest was good. Governor Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to God, and the Pilgrims invited their Native American friends. Chief Massasoit and 90 members of his tribe came, along with Squanto, bearing venison and wild turkeys for everyone to share. Both groups feasted, played games, ran races, and showed their prowess with bows and arrows and muskets. With so much to be grateful for, the Pilgrims celebrated that first Thanksgiving for three days!

Adapted from "Let's Talk Turkey," by Barbara Curtis, Kyria.com. Click here to read the original article in its entirety and for reprint information.

Free Newsletters

More Newsletters

Follow us