George Washington proclaimed the fourth Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day during the first year of his American presidency in 1789.  Several countries have established similar holidays, such as Canada’s celebration on the second Monday of October each year and Germany’s harvest festival, usually held on the first Sunday of October in conjunction with Oktoberfest. 

The number of foreign communities and nations that hold annual celebrations of thanksgiving is increasing. The traditions they are establishing are similar to the American holiday, for they include parades, public proclamations of appreciation to farmers and laborers, indulgence in food and beverages and a day of rest except for the cooks and others in essential occupations. 

Most historians trace the ritual in the U.S. to English immigrants who disembarked from their transport ship, the Mayflower, near Plymouth, Massachusetts in the autumn of 1620.  Referred to now as the Pilgrims, they mostly originated from Scrooby in Nottinghamshire—where the rogue hero, Robin Hood, lived a couple centuries earlier. 

The Pilgrims were called Separatists or Puritans because they adhered to stricter religious doctrines than those of the Church of England, which became England’s official church after King Henry VIII denounced the Roman Catholic Church around 1530 when Pope Clement VII would not annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon or approve his five subsequent marriages. 

Because they were persecuted for their religious doctrines, the Separatists emigrated to the Dutch city of Leiden where religious differences were acceptable, mostly between 1609 and 1620.  They came to America from Leiden because there were no laws banning religious freedom in the New World. 

They had heard about North America from English people who established Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and from preceding Spanish and French explorers of the continent.  They arrived too late in the growing season to raise food their first year in Plymouth but they had enough provisions with them and captured wild game, fish and mollusks for survival during the winter of 1620-21; nonetheless, many colonists succumbed. 

According to a Plimoth Plantation ( publication, the colonists struck a treaty with native inhabitants in March, 1621, which included agreements to not harm each other, to return anything that was stolen, to not bring weapons to meetings and to become allies in times of war.    

Squanto, a native of the Wampanoag tribe, who had been captured years earlier by English explorers of the Massachusetts coastal region and who had spent some time in London, returned to America with the Puritans and instructed them about growing corn and other crops in 1621.  Unfortunately, Squanto died in 1622.

The Puritans had practiced several religious days of fasting and thanksgiving each autumn for many years in England and Holland.  While residents of Leiden, the Separatists observed a three-day commemorative celebration of the end of the siege of Leiden by Spanish invaders who abandoned their efforts to subjugate the city on October 3, 1574, even though Spain’s war with the Netherlands did not end until 1648.

Drawing on these practices, the colonists held their first Thanksgiving during three consecutive days in the fall of 1621 and included about 90 of their indigenous predecessors, the Wampanoag Indians led by Ousamequin, also known as Massasoit to the English settlers.  Besides Puritan religious observances, the participants exchanged gifts and enjoyed communal meals and discussion together.

Good relations between the English immigrants in both Virginia and Massachusetts with their Indian neighbors deteriorated within a few years after their respective arrivals in 1607 and 1620.  Native People came to view the colonists as invaders who competed for their resources and used superior weapons to subdue them. 

Many Native Americans today look at Thanksgiving Day as a celebration by European immigrants who captured their land and changed Native cultures forever.  Most still view the land, air, water and all creatures as gifts to be shared without ownership; Thanksgiving Day has a mixed connotation of appreciation and loss of heritage. 

Native Americans usually held pow-wows each fall that included religious rituals, dances, contests and community meals long before Europeans came to America.   Excerpts in Smithsonian Magazine from a book by Kenneth C. Davis, suggest French and Spanish explorers in other parts of the continent also may have practiced ceremonies of appreciation that preceded the celebrations by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. 

According to the historian, Ralph F. Wilson, it wasn’t until 1840 that the term “Pilgrim” came to refer to the Puritans who disembarked at Plymouth, Massachusetts. 

An unknown person adopted the term from William Bradford (1590-1657), the first governor of the new colony who served five terms.  Bradford had described his fellow citizens as follows: “They knew they were pilgrimes …and looked not much on those things (their previous homes in Leiden and England), but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits.” 

Pilgrim became part of the American vernacular to describe someone searching for a better spiritual life. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Dr. Rosmann lives near Harlan, Iowa.  Contact him at: