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The Pilgrims set ground at Plymouth Rock on November 21, 1620 (by our modern Gregorian calendar--it was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar). Their first winter was devastating. At the beginning of the following fall, they had lost 46 of the original 102 who sailed on the Mayflower. The harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. The remaining colonists decided to celebrate with a feast, including 91 Indians who had helped the Pilgrims survive their first year. It is believed that the Pilgrims would not have made it through the year without the help of the natives. The feast was more of a traditional English harvest festival than a true "thanksgiving" observance. The Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving began at some unknown date between September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October. It lasted three days.
This "Thanksgiving" feast was not repeated the following year. In 1623, during a severe drought, the pilgrims gathered in a prayer service, praying for rain. When a long, steady rain followed the very next day, Governor Bradford proclaimed another day of Thanksgiving, again inviting their Indian friends. It wasn't until June of 1676 that another Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed.
On June 20, 1676, the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts held a meeting to determine how best to express thanks for the good fortune that had seen their community securely established. By unanimous vote they instructed Edward Rawson, the clerk, to proclaim June 29 as a day of thanksgiving.
October of 1777 marked the first time that all 13 colonies joined in a thanksgiving celebration. It also commemorated the patriotic victory over the British at Saratoga. This was only a one-time affair.
Several Presidents, including George Washington, made a one-time Thanksgiving holiday. Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving in 1789, although some were opposed to it. There was discord among the colonies, many feeling the hardships of a few Pilgrims did not warrant a national holiday. Later, President Thomas Jefferson scoffed at the idea of having a day of thanksgiving.
It was Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, whose efforts eventually led to what we recognize as Thanksgiving. Hale wrote many editorials championing her cause in her Boston Ladies' Magazine, and later, in Godey's Lady's Book. Finally, after a 40-year campaign of writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents, Hale's obsession became a reality in 1863. President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
Every president proclaimed Thanksgiving after Lincoln. The date was changed a couple of times. Lincoln's designation as the last Thursday in November (which could occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to Christmas for businesses) was changed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939. He set it up one week to the next-to-last Thursday in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. Two years later, public uproar against this decision caused the president to move Thanksgiving back to its original date. In 1941, Congress finally sanctioned Thanksgiving as a legal holiday, as the fourth Thursday in November.
In 1621, Edward Winslow wrote a letter to a friend in England that describes the meal shared by the Pilgrims with the Indians.