In the autumn of 1621 in a struggling colony on the remote shores of Massachusetts Bay, the surviving colonists who had stepped off the Mayflower paused to celebrate. “Our harvest being gotten in,” the Puritan chronicler Edward Winslow wrote, “our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together.” The men returned with enough wild birds to make a feast for the 50 surviving Pilgrim colonists (half the number who had arrived a year earlier) and a group of “some 90 men” who arrived with the Wampanoag leader Massasoit and who contributed five deer to the three-day celebration.
Although earlier colonists had celebrated days of thanksgiving before the Mayflower colonists arrived, the 1621 feast at Plymouth Colony is considered the closest historical forerunner of the familiar modern-day Thanksgiving tradition. The link, however, is not direct. The feast Winslow described was basically a secular celebration. For the devoutly Christian Pilgrims, a community-wide day of thanksgiving would have been marked primarily by prayer and communal worship. In any case, Winslow’s description of the Pilgrim feast, published in London in 1622, was unknown in America until the mid-19th century. Novelist and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, who launched a widely publicized campaign for a national holiday in 1846, first wrote about a link to the Mayflower Pilgrims in 1865. The connection quickly caught on: by 1870 children’s schoolbooks contained the now-familiar story of the Pilgrims, the Indians and the “first Thanksgiving.”