Reliving Thanksgiving History with 5 National Parks

Wampanoag Nation Singers and Dancers performing in the spring at Cape Cod National Seashore - NPS Photo

Thanksgiving is one of our most treasured national holidays. It is also perhaps the longest-standing American tradition. The history of Thanksgiving dates back several hundred years, and nowhere is that history better displayed than at these national parks. 

Before the first Thanksgiving

Wampanoag celebration presentation at Cape Cod National Seashore

Wampanoag spring celebration presentation, Cape Cod National Seashore

NPS Photo

The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians held a feast at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, in 1621 that is widely considered the first Thanksgiving. At the time of the Pilgrims' arrival, the Wampanoag people were one of the largest tribes in New England, leading semi-nomadic lives that involved hunting and farming for corn, beans, and squash in a particular area before moving on. Much of their traditional homeland is now a part of Cape Cod National Seashore.


Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation

Thanksgiving has become a national holiday and a beloved tradition, but it wasn't always universally celebrated across the country. Sara Josepha Hale campaigned for the creation of an annual Thanksgiving celebration for years, starting with an essay published in Boston's Ladies' Magazine in 1827. Finally, soon after one of her letters arrived on the desk of President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 28, 1863, her quest was fulfilled.

Image of Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation from October 3, 1863
Library of Congress

On Oct. 3, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War's third autumn, President Lincoln issued a proclamation designating the last Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving and invited Americans everywhere to take part.

Learn more about Lincoln's life and his ties to the Thanksgiving holiday at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Illinois.

America's colonial beginnings

Although Thanksgiving did not become a nationally-recognized holiday until Lincoln's proclamation in 1863, the United States celebrated it sporadically for many years previous. On Dec. 18, 1777, all 13 colonies took part in the first unified day of Thanksgiving.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe's oil painting "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" with colonials and Native Americans gathered around a table for a meal

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Wikimedia Commons

Early Thanksgiving traditions are often associated with America's colonial times, and nowhere is colonial life more vividly displayed than at Virginia's Colonial National Historical Park. The park includes Historic Jamestowne, the first permanent English settlement in North America, which has many similarities to its northern counterpart, Plymouth. 

The tradition of the turkey pardon

Black and white image of President JFK pardoning a turkey wearing a sign "Good eating, Mr. President!"
National Park Service

President Harry Truman, whose home as a young man is open to the public at Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, is often erroneously credited with being the first president to officially pardon a turkey on Thanksgiving. The commonly reprinted photograph of Truman "pardoning" a turkey was actually taken at a 1947 ceremony during which the president was given a live Thanksgiving turkey as a gift.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy became the first president to publicly spare the life of a lucky bird on Thanksgiving. This later became an annual tradition after George H.W. Bush granted his turkey a presidential pardon on national television in 1989.

The "other" first Thanksgiving

Engraving of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

Thanksgiving is rooted in European holiday traditions that date back centuries before the first Pilgrim set his buckled shoes on Plymouth Rock. In all likelihood, the first Thanksgiving on American soil took place on Sept. 8, 1565, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers founded the settlement of St. Augustine in what is now Florida. Soon after landing, the settlers celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving and enjoyed a great feast near the location of present-day Castillo De San Marcos National Monument.

More than just an opportunity to eat turkey and watch football, Thanksgiving offers a chance to enjoy the company of loved ones and give thanks for all we have. This year, take a look back at Thanksgivings of the past. Introduce a new tradition into the family holiday and visit a national park near you.

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