The Origins of Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving

Squanto and Sarah Josepha Buel Hale had something to do with it

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

It is important to note that the Pilgrims were thankful to the American Indians for survival when they arrived in Massachusetts on the Mayflower. They meant to go to Manhattan (apparently that was a hot spot even in 1621) but due to bad weather, they ended up landing on the shores of Cape Cod.

It was a miracle, they tell us. In the midst of rough waves, they were gently deposited on the beach right in front of an empty village. One hundred and six Pilgrims were on the journey to the colonies, but only fifty-three survived.

They moved right in.

Of course, they couldn’t know that the original villagers, the Patuxet Indians, had died of a smallpox epidemic years before.

Another miracle was Tisquantum, a Patuxet Indian, otherwise known as Squanto. Having been kidnapped years earlier, taken to Spain, and sold into slavery, he had escaped and returned to his home village in 1619 only to find it empty.

The village where he grew up? The pilgrims lived there now.

He had escaped the epidemic and was the only Patuxet Indian left.

The Pilgrims First Winter

Together, he and his adopted tribe the Wampanoags helped the pilgrims survive. According to Edward Winslow, a senior leader on the Mayflower, the tribes loved on them…

“We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us; very loving and ready to pleasure us: we often go to them, and they come to us;-”

Squanto and the other Indian tribes helped them plant corn, beans, squash, to hunt game and to fish. There were even pumpkins in attendance.

And then they had the first giving of thanks together that winter;

“-many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted,-”

Many believe that this is the first Thanksgiving from which everything is derived. There is some truth to this. Three days. That was some party.

Below is a drawing of Squanto teaching the hapless pilgrims how to fish. He was also a diplomat and translator, mediating between the Pilgrims and local tribes like the Pokanokets and the Narragansetts. However, he was the very last Patuxet Indian to walk this earth.

The German Kali Works, New York, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He died in 1622.

Thanksgiving wasn’t national

We know about Thanksgiving; the corn, squash (We rarely have it, but it's in the public menu somewhere), cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, pumpkin pie, turkey, and the everloving cranberry sauce. It’s loosely derived from this original meal.

We had been taught that from that moment, we memorialized that event with our Thanksgiving day predicated on the togetherness of our pilgrim fathers with the Wampanoags…not quite so fast.

There is more to the story.

People who lived in the New England states liked to celebrate Thanksgiving day — other regions not so much. First of all, there was nothing official. The date? That was questionable. The place?

Some states celebrated, but the South had never heard of it.

President Thomas Jefferson declared it when he was Governor of Virginia, but not as President. When asked, he told the Baptists that he believed that Thanksgiving was a religious holiday. Since he believed in the separation of church and state he would not declare it.

So he could or would do nothing for the persecuted Baptists. You see, at this time, Baptists (as in the same ones who attend those Missionary Baptist Churches that we see on every corner in every town) were considered to be…a cult. Imagine.

Jefferson was considered godless by some after this.

Sarah Josepha Buel Hale, Mother of Thanksgiving

But Sarah Josepha Hale would not give up promoting a national Thanksgiving holiday. A writer and teacher, she was the editor of Godey’s Lady's Book for forty years. With an audience of over 150,000 subscribers, it was the most influential publication of its day.

She also wrote the poem Mary Had a Little Lamb.

She petitioned five U.S. Presidents in a row to turn Thanksgiving Day into a formal, national holiday much like the 4th of July. Mrs. Hale worked on this project for thirty-six years. It was of some concern to her that no one would decide on a single day to celebrate.

Oddly, random days had been announced by various leaders in diverse locations:

For example, a day of thanks had been proclaimed in 1777 by George Washington after the colonies defeated the British in the Battles of Saratoga.

And in 1789, the first House of Representatives proclaimed a random day of Thanksgiving.

However, until Mrs. Hale promoted Thanksgiving Day, there was no annual or national day.

They were in the middle of a war

There was a war on. The Battle of Gettysburg between the North and South was carried out over three days; there were 50,000 casualties. It was the deadliest battle on American soil.

The southern General Robert E Lee had been beaten by the Union after his invasion into the North, but the announcement was perhaps not universally acknowledged at first…by both sides.

Denial can cause a lot of people to die.

Scholars looking back could see that the North had already won. It’s very possible that with the resources he had at his disposal, such as the amount of ammunition available, the number of soldiers not yet deployed, and the North’s superior industrial might, Lincoln knew this too.

It just wasn’t formal yet. This sounds morbid but simply put, more people had to perish. And this they did for over two more years.

President Abraham Lincoln wanted to unite the nation during the Civil War, so after reading Sarah’s essays, he prepared a declaration. The nation was still split in half, but it was to be a day to give thanks that would be beneficial for both sides.

Mrs. Hale thought that the holiday was a way for the nation to heal even if only for a moment.

She continued to write editorials on the subject, urging Americans to “put aside sectional feelings and local incidents” and rally around the unifying cause of Thanksgiving.

Photo by Girma Nigusse on Unsplash

President Lincoln agreed: The proclamation arrived from President Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863:

“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.”

The first national proclaimed Thanksgiving was on November 26, 1863. Even then, the South still waited several decades before celebrating the holiday.

Many of us do not remember being taught that there was a connection between the Thanksgiving holiday and our American Civil War. However, this is when the holiday really began.

Here’s another thing; to give thanks (all faiths were encouraged) was not the only reason for the holiday.

Lest the country forget that it was at war, however, Lincoln suggested that Thanksgiving would be an occasion not just to celebrate bounty but to grieve loss.

Thanksgiving is also a time to remember.

Let us give thanks every Thanksgiving — to Mrs. Sarah Josepha Buel Hale, Squanto, President Lincoln, to our friends, family, and God.

Let us also remember those we have lost.

And may God bless us all.

Writer and Observer: Injustice, History, Family, Love, and Politics. Electrical Engineer. Completing First Historical Fiction Novel.

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