The First Thanksgiving, 1621

“The First Thanksgiving, 1621” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris was painted between 1912 and 1915. The artist created a romanticized version that is not historically accurate. The clothing worn by the Pilgrims is incorrect, the Wampanoag did not wear feathered war bonnets, nor would they have been sitting on the ground.

It’s finally here, the week in which we celebrate Thanksgiving. For many of us, our Thursday will be spent eating turkey with all the trimmings, maybe a cold beer or two, likely a little football, and for sure a slice of pumpkin pie and a nap to cap it all off — at least that is how I’ll be spending it.

Most of us know that Thanksgiving is a historic holiday set aside to not only honor the tradition set out by the Pilgrims, but as a chance to put life’s many obstacles and headaches aside for one day and give thanks for all that is good in life. With such an important holiday upon us, I thought this week would be a good opportunity to lay out some fun and interesting historical tidbits of one of America’s favorite holidays — the “other” first Thanksgiving.

As we learned in grade school, the first Thanksgiving was between a group of Puritans and the Wampanoag tribe in 1621. It was an autumn feast to celebrate a successful harvest after a long period of near starvation for the Puritan colonists. History places this giving of thanks in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Puritans were stationed.

Though this event is widely recognized as the first Thanksgiving, another giving of thanks feast is said to have happened in North America 56 years prior. That year, a fleet of Spanish colonists landed in what is now Florida, planted a cross on the shore, and created the settlement of St. Augustine. To celebrate their arrival, and to give thanks, the Spaniards had a great feast and invited members of the Timucuan tribe to attend.

When it comes to recognizing Thanksgiving, it’s hard to believe one of the founding fathers refused to do it.

We all know of Thomas Jefferson and the role he played in the foundation of our nation. Not only did he pen the Declaration of Independence, but he was also the third president of the United States. It was not that Jefferson scorned Thanksgiving, but he thought it inappropriate for the United States to recognize it as a federal holiday. His reasoning being, since the holiday held some religious ritual during Jefferson’s time, he believed there should be a strict separation between church and state, and that the federal government should have no part in recognizing it as a holiday.

Speaking of former presidents and holiday traditions, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge once received an odd Thanksgiving gift. In 1926, a man from Mississippi sent Coolidge a raccoon meant to be eaten for Thanksgiving dinner. The note with the raccoon read “raccoon meat is toothsome.” The family did not eat the raccoon, of course, but instead named it Rebecca and kept it as a pet.

Since we are on a roll with presidents and Thanksgiving, our last fact may as well have to do with FDR.

Roosevelt was worried that Christmas was cut short by having Thanksgiving so close to the end of November. In an attempt to change the date, Roosevelt believed that the day of thanks should be held one week earlier than it is today. As you may have guessed, some political allies supported the idea and held “Franksgiving” as instructed by FDR. His rivals, however, likened the president to a dictator and refused to alter the longtime-honored tradition of hosting the holiday on its traditional date. Today we celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November. The rest, I suppose, is history!

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, 1-4 p.m. Saturday and by appointment. Admission is free. For more information, call the museum at 320-587-2109.