History of the Modern American Thanksgiving

By Karen Nelte

August 9, 2001

Many cultures have set aside times to give thanks for blessings such as rain, crops, food, and health. It is not my purpose here to study the earliest thanksgiving traditions of this country, but only to find out where today's American Thanksgiving came from. I still have many questions that I am looking for answers to. This collection of partial answers I found to my questions was prepared to address some common misconceptions regarding the history of Thanksgiving. I almost felt like it needed an introduction about the general history of this country in the time of the English colonies, since there are also many misconceptions about that, but to write one might take me so long that the people this was originally intended for would never get it. Unfortunately, descriptions of two wars are necessary to answer obvious questions that come up. Their inclusion is not meant to imply that Thanksgiving is "about" these wars, but only to show the part they played in its history. While some of the Thanksgiving proclamations quoted are long, they are included because they are a significant part of the answer to "What is Thanksgiving about and where did it come from?"

Most of us have been taught since childhood that Thanksgiving originated in 1621 when the Pilgrim survivors of the first winter, the following autumn had their first good harvest and celebrated for 3 days with their Indian friends who had taught them much about how to survive in this new land. This event did happen and is described by Edward Winslow, in a letter dated December 11, 1621. However, the later Thanksgivings are not commemorations of this event, as we will see. Here is an excerpt from the letter:

Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom; our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Edward Winslow, December 11, 1621, in: [Mourt’s Relation] A Relation or Journall of the beginning and proceeding of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, by certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and others. London, Printed for John Bellamie, 1622. p.60-61.

At this celebration, a peace and friendship agreement was made between the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit and Miles Standish giving the Pilgrims the clearing in the forest where the old Patuxet village had been to build their new town of Plymouth. As more and more English settlers arrived in the following years, this peace gradually deteriorated and 54 years later, in 1675, the English and Wampanoag were fighting each other in King Philip's War.

This time of feasting and thanking God was of a very different nature to the thanksgiving days that followed it. They were days focused on prayer and religious observance. Although they included a meal, it was not the focus of the day. In some cases, regular work was not done. We will see this from the records we have of these days, and also how Thanksgiving came to be the annual observance that it is today, and what thanks was being given for.

The next record we have of a thanksgiving day is from 1623. Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony called for a day of solemn prayer to seek God's mercy to end a drought. When they received rain, he proclaimed a day of thanksgiving (in the summer of 1623):

I may not here omit how, notwithstand all their great pains and industry, and the great hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast, and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them. By a great drought which continued from the third week in May, till about the middle of July, without any rain and with great heat for the most part, insomuch as the corn began to wither away though it was set with fish, the moisture whereof helped it much. Yet at length it began to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were parched like withered hay, part whereof was never recovered. Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own and the Indians' admiration that lived amongst them. For all the morning, and the greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hot, and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen; yet toward evening it began to overcast, and shortly after to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God. It came without either wind or thunder or any violence, and by degrees in that abundance as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked and therewith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderful to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold. And afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation. Samuel Eliot Morison, ed. New York, 1952, p.131-132.

The first thanksgiving day of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was July 8, 1630. Ships from England had had a difficult and stormy voyage. On their safe arrival, Governor John Winthrop declared a day of thanksgiving. In his journal, he records:

We kept a day of thanksgiving in all the plantations.
The Journal of John Winthrop 1630 - 1649. Abridged edition. Richard S. Dunn & Laetitia Yeandle, ed. p. 30.

In 1637, the Pequot War culminated in the burning of Fort Mystic by the English and their allies, killing hundreds of Pequot men, women, and children and almost wiping out the Pequot tribe. I'll briefly look at what is known about this war since the safe return of the soldiers from burning the fort is one of the events for which the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a thanksgiving day. It was proclaimed by Governor John Winthrop in 1637:

The 12th of the 8th m. was ordered to bee kept a day of publicke thanksgiving to God for his great m'cies in subdewing the Pecoits, bringing the soldiers in safety, the successe of the conference, & good news from Germany.
Nathaniel Shurtleff, ed. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, Vol I. Boston, 1853. p.204.

Winthrop's journal entry for this day is:

A day of thanksgiving kept in all the churches for our victories against the Pequots, and for the success of the assembly; but by reason of this latter, some of Boston would not be present at the public exercises. The captains and soldiers who had been in the late service were feasted, and after the sermon the magistrates and elders accompanied them to the door of the house where they dined.
The Journal of John Winthrop 1630 - 1649. Abridged edition. Richard S. Dunn & Laetitia Yeandle, ed. p. 130 - 131.

During the 1630s, increased Dutch and English migration into the Pequot territory of Connecticut Valley and friction between the different groups led to a number of killings and retaliatory killings from all sides. One incident that led to the war was the death of Captain John Stone in 1634. He was described by the Puritans as "a drunkard, lecher, braggart, bully, and blasphemer", and was in legal trouble as a result of attempting to hijack a ship, threatening the Plymouth governor with a knife, and other things, and banished from the English colonies on penalty of death. It is uncertain who killed Stone. Captain John Mason says that the killers "were not native Pequots; but had frequent recourse unto them". Winthrop says that the Pequot admitted killing Stone, and said that it was to free two of their own men whom Stone had bound and forcibly made to show him the way up the river, and then:

he with two others and the two Indians, (their hands still bound,) went on shore, and nine of their men watched them, and when they were on sleep in the night, they killed them; then going towards the pinnace to have taken that, it suddenly blew up into the air. This was related with such confidence and gravity, as, having no means to contradict it, we inclined to believe it.

Winthrop also describes a Pequot attempt to make peace in the following letter to Plymouth in 1636:

To let you know somewhat of our affairs, you may understand that the Pequots have sent some of theirs to us, to desire our friendship, and offered much wampum and beaver, etc. The first messengers were dismissed without answer. With the next we had divers days' conference; and taking the advice of some of our ministers and seeking the Lord in it, we concluded a peace and friendship with them, upon these conditions: That they should deliver up to us those men who were guilty of Stone's death, etc. And if we desired to plant in Connecticut, they should give up their right to us, and so we would send to trade with them as our friends - which was the chief thing we aimed at, [they] being now at war with the Dutch and the rest of their neighbours.

Winthrop records that Pequot ambassadors said that turning over the killers of Stone to the English would require approval of their sachem, and then that the next day they agreed to deliver the two men to the English. We don't know whether the ambassadors made an agreement they could not persuade their sachem to accept, or whether Winthrop misunderstood the agreement, but the killers were not handed over. In any case, given that the English considered Stone a criminal, banished on penalty of death, and believed that the Pequot probably killed him to free those he held captive, his death doesn't seem much of an excuse to go to war.

Another provocation for the war was the death of John Oldham in 1636. Again, there is dispute about which tribe was responsible for his death. Lion Gardener says "The Narragansets that were at Block-Island killed him". John Underhill claims that the Block Islanders killed Oldham. William Bradford says that Oldham's killers were harbored by the Pequot. Thomas Church says that either the Pequot murdered Oldham or sheltered the murderers. Roger Williams claims that Pequot murdered Oldham and were sheltered by Wequashcuck, a Niantic sachem. It seems that most of the English believed that the Block Islanders, a tributary tribe to the Narragansett, killed Oldham. It appears that the Narragansett accepted an English expedition in 1636 against the Block Islanders, as punishment for Oldham's murder. Francis Jennings says that Miantonomo, a Narragansett sachem, "took two hundred warriors in seventeen canoes to Block Island to deal out revenge in Massachusetts’ behalf for Oldham's death". Winthrop says that Miantonomo offered Massachusetts assistance for the revenge of Oldham's murder, and informed them that he was holding one of their escaped prisoners (one of Oldham's killers) and would turn him over when the English sent for him.

The intention of the English expedition against Block Island is stated by Winthrop as "to put to death the men of Block Island, but to spare the women and children, and to bring them away, and to take possession of the island; and from thence to go to the Pequods to demand the murderers of Capt. Stone and other English, and one thousand fathom of wampom for damages, etc., and some of their children as hostages, which if they should refuse, they were to obtain it by force." This clearly goes far beyond just putting to death Oldham's killers, or other murderers. On August 24, 1636 Captain Endecott departed for Block Island with about 100 men. They spent two days searching the island, but most inhabitants had hidden in the forest. The soldiers burnt their deserted villages and the corn that they found, and then sailed for the Pequot harbor. Upon arrival they informed the Pequot of their demands. A Pequot messenger told them the sachem would meet with them if both sides would lay down their weapons, but the English refused to believe this and decided to attack. When the Pequot refused to fight a European-style open battle, English troops burnt the Pequot houses, killing 13 and wounding 40 Pequot, and destroyed their crops and canoes. In retaliation, the Pequot began a series of kidnappings, murders, and tortures of colonists in Connecticut, and also besieged Fort Saybrook. Sassacus tried to persuade the Narragansett to ally with the Pequot against the English. But, in March 1637, Miantonomo allied the Narragansett with the English, "solemnizing the treaty with a gift of wampum and the severed hand of a Pequot brave". During April 1637, the English prepared for war against the Pequot (a levy to raise funds for it was authorized April 18; further troops were sent to Saybrook). The Pequot were further provoked by the English taking land belonging to Sowheag, a sachem. On April 23, a band of Pequots attacked settlers working in a field near Wethersfield, killing 7 men, 1 woman, and 1 child, and taking 2 girls captive.

The Indian allies of the English also encouraged the war. In 1636, Plymouth had been informed by Uncas, the first Mohegan sachem, that the Pequot had planned to attack one of the Plymouth trading vessels the previous year, although the attack never happened. It is suggested that Uncas may have seen war between the English and Pequot as a way of defeating Sassacus. Roger Williams informed Winthrop that the Narragansett offered to assist in a war on the Pequot, and that they wanted to steal Pequot canoes, kill all the men, and most of the women and children. Israel Stoughton wrote to Winthrop that the Narragansett "are so eagerly sett upon their owne ends, to gett booty etc. and to augment their owne Kingdome etc., that upon the matter they use us as their stalking horse"; and described a sachem of Long Island seeking peace with the English, but Miantonomo trying to "prejudice us against her etc. that we might fall foule with her, albeit he can shew in truth no cause".

The colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut decided to fight the Pequot together. On May 10, 1637, John Mason with 90 colonists and 60 Mohegans under Uncas left Hartford to attack Sassacus's Pequot Harbor fort. On May 15, Mason and Uncas arrived at fort Saybrook with their troops. John Underhill had 19 men at the fort. Uncas led 40 men to battle against the Pequot and Niantic, killing 4 to 7. On May 18, Mason and Underhill's forces left for Narragansett territory, and arrived on May 20. The Narragansett under Miantonomo and Eastern Niantic under Ninigret confirmed their alliance with the English. On May 25, the English with their allies approached Sassacus's Pequot Harbor fort, but decided to attack the fort at Mystic instead. Various reasons for this change of plan have been suggested, ranging from its closer location to a deliberate attempt to avoid a battle and instead have a massacre. They arrived and camped at Mystic at night. On May 26, the English fired a volley at dawn, then entered the fort, Mason at the northeast, and Underhill at the southwest. When Mason found the battle wasn't going his way, he decided to set fire to 80 huts housing approximately 800 people. Six to seven hundred Pequot died in an hour, 7 were taken captive, and 7 escaped (according to Mason's eyewitness account). Two Englishmen were killed, and 20 to 40 were wounded. The English marched toward their ships, burning Pequot dwellings along the way. In late May or early June, Mason and Underhill's troops united with Massachusetts troops. A group of Pequot was discovered near Connecticut River. The Narragansett pretended to offer them protection, enabling the English troops to capture them. Some Pequot managed to flee to Manhattan Island. In July, the English pursued fugitive Pequot. On July 13, English forces surrounded Mystic survivors in a swamp near New Haven and offered safe conduct to old men, women, children, and non-Pequot residents of the swamp if they agreed to be taken prisoner. Two hundred people accepted this offer, and 80 warriors refused and started shooting arrows at the English. In the early morning fog of July 14, between 20 and 70 Pequot escaped. Sassacus and other Pequots sought refuge with neighboring tribes, but were refused. In the summer of 1637, the English received severed heads of Pequots as tribute, including the head of Sassacus sent by the Mohawk.

Shortly after the burning of Fort Mystic, at least 30 male Pequot prisoners were killed by the English. After the war, the prisoners not sold to foreign countries were divided as slaves among the Indian allies of the English. On September 21, 1638, in the Treaty of Hartford, it was declared that: 1.) Survivors of the swamp siege be divided as slaves among the Indian allies: 80 to Uncas and Mohegans, 80 to Miantonomo and Narragansets, 20 to Ninigret and Niantics; 2.) No Pequot may inhabit former Pequot territory; 3.) The name Pequot may not be used, slaves must take the name of the tribe to which they are enslaved. Alden Vaughan states that "Toward the end of 1637 the few remaining sachems begged for an end to the war, promising vassalage in return for their lives. A peace convention was arranged for the following September. With the Treaty of Hartford, signed September 21, 1638, the Pequots ceased to exist as an independent polity". A small remnant of the Pequot tribe did remain. The United Colonies of Connecticut "set aside 8,000 acres as a home for the scattered remnants of the Pequot tribe, the first Indian reservation in the United States". And William Williams talks about "a remnant of the Pequots still existing. They live in the town of Groton, and amount to about forty souls".

How did the English colonists feel about what happened? Some expressed regret at injustice. Gardener said, "... that all men and posterity might know how and why so many honest men had their blood shed ... ". And Roger Williams said "some innocent blood cryes at Qunnihticut". But Winthrop's proclamation of "a day of publicke thanksgiving to God for his great m'cies in subdewing the Pecoits, ..." shows that at least some were thankful about it.

The next thanksgiving days we have records of are from the Connecticut Colony. This seems to be where public days of thanks for general well-being were added to the custom of days of thanks for particular events. The earliest records of thanksgiving days of the colony are these:

On August 36, 1639: "It was concluded that there be a publique day of thanksgiving in these plantacons uppon the 18th of the next month."
On October 25, 1644: "Its ordered, there shal be a publike day of thanksgiving through this Jurisdiction, uppon Wensday com fortnight."
On December 5, 1649: "It is ordered by this Courte, that there shall bee a publick day of Thanksgiving kept by all the Churches within this Jurissdiction that may bee seasonably acquainted therewith, uppon this day fortnight."
The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, prior to the Union with New Haven Colony, May, 1665. Transcribed and Published, in accordance with a resolution of the General Assembly, under the supervision of the Secretary of State. By J. Hammond Trumbull. Hartford: Brown & Parsons, 1850. p.33, 113, 201.

Connecticut Colony held thanksgiving days every autumn for 1649 to 1674. Some years had more detailed proclamations giving the reasons for their thanks. For example, the General Court held in Hartford on October 12, 1671 made this order:

This court doth order and appoint that the first Wednesday in November next, be solemnly kept a day of publique Thanksgiving, throughout this Colony, to praise God for his mercy and goodness towards us, in the Continuance of the Gospel and Ordinances amougst us, and in the fruits of the earth, and that measure of health that hath been enjoyed in our plantations, and the restoring of health to those who have been visited with sickness, and for our peace, and for the goodness of God in settleing good agreement between them and the Nations in our neighbour Colony, and for the peace that yet through the goodness of God is enjoyed in our native country.

In 1675, Connecticut was fighting in King Philip's War and did not have a thanksgiving day. When the war ended, a thanksgiving day was proclaimed on June 20, 1676:

The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgements he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord's mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions: The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour, many Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God's Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being perswaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and soulds as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.
William De Loss Love. Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1895, p. 202.

This is a thanksgiving for victory in King Philip's War, in which the children and grandchildren of the people who sat down to dinner together in 1621 were fighting each other. So, what was this war about?

Governor William Bradford had died in 1657, and Massasoit (principal leader of the Wampanoag) around 1660. Massasoit's eldest son Wamsutta (called Alexander by the English) succeeded him. In 1662, Wamsutta was summoned by the Plymouth government to answer charges relating to land sale. Soon after questioning, he became sick and died. The Wampanoag believed he had been poisoned by the English, and were greatly angered. Wamsutta's brother Metacomet (called Philip by the English) succeeded him. Increasing competition for resources and different concepts of land use had caused friction between the two groups for many years. As the first generation grew old and died, the personal bonds that had held the uneasy peace together were lost, and suspicion increased. Rumors spread. There were a number of angry confrontations. Plymouth made more demands of the Wampanoag, and often summoned Metacomet before the magistrate, sometimes imprisoned him, and never released him until he agreed to give up considerable parts of his people's land. In 1671 Metacomet was forced to sign a treaty which demanded that he fully subject his people to the English government. The English also demanded that they surrender their guns. By this time he knew that the only possible way for them to retain some control over themselves and their land would be by war. For the next four years, the tension grew, and Metacomet worked to establish alliances with neighboring tribes. The Nipmuck and Pocumtuck promised him their support.

While I usually prefer to avoid quoting from people so muddled in thought, the following strange quote shows that even someone who considered Indians "savages" understood that Metacomet was fighting for the freedom of his people:

Of Philip it may truthfully be said that he was the greatest Indian of whom we have any record. His control of his own tribe, the Wampanoags, was supreme and unquestioned. His sagacity, shrewdness, and cunning in his dealings with the whites were unequalled in Indian strategy. His skill in uniting New England tribes, some of which had been his lifelong enemies, shows a power for organization and control equal, if not superior, to that of the great statesmen and warriors of other races. His strong friendships shielded many of his benefactors in the hour of greatest peril, while his revenge was a fearful cyclone of terror that swept all before it. His campaigns were short, sharp, and decisive. Within a twelvemonth from June 20, 1675, he had well nigh destroyed the flower and fruit of fifty years of New England planting. His courage and coolness in battle made him the natural leader of the savage forces, while his caution prevented him from personal sacrifice. Let us remember that he was a savage with the nature, the instincts, the education, the traditions of savage races for untold generations. He found himself in a corner of the old Wampanoag possessions, shut out from his hunting-grounds.. . . He was a slave on his own soil. His own hands had wrought the fetters which bound him. Shall we blame him that he made one manly effort, though a savage one, to be free? It was the freedom once more of the savage or death at the white man's bullet. He chose the latter in struggling for the former. Death was sweeter to him than civilization.
B. F. Stevens. King Philip's War 1675. Boston: Nathan Sawyer & Son, 1900. p.8-10.

Lest we imagine that the author of the above document thought the Wampanoag should be free, the rest of the document shows that he considered it natural for Plymouth to rule the people on whose land they were living; he only realized that the Wampanoag wanted freedom enough to fight for it.

This is the treaty Metacomet was forced to sign on April 10, 1671:

Whereas my Father, my Brother, and my self, have formally submitted ourselves and our People unto the Kings Majesty of England, and to the Colony of New Plimouth, by solemn Covenant under our hand; but I having of late through my indiscretion, and the naughtiness of my Heart, violated and broken this my Covenant with my Friends, by taking up Arms, with evil intent against them, and that groundlessly; I being now deeply sensible of my unfaithfulness and folly, do desire at this Time solemnly to renew my Covenant with my ancient Friends, and my Fathers Friends above mentioned, and do desire that this may testify to the World against me if ever I shall again fail in my faithfulness towards them (that I have now, and at all Times found so kind to me) or any other of the English Colonies; and as a real Pledg of my true intentions for the Future to be faithful and friendly, I do freely engage to resign up unto the Government of New Plimouth, all my English Arms, to be kept by them for their security, so long as they shall see reason. For true performance of the premises, I have hereunto set my Hand, together with the rest of my Council.
William Hubbard. The History of the Indian Wars in New England From the First Settlement to the Termination of the War with King Philip, in 1677. Samuel Drake, ed. Lenox Hill Pub. & Dist. Co. 1865. p.54-55.

While the above treaty is obviously not an expression of how Metacomet really felt, it is unknown whether or not any record remains of what he said. The following statement is said to have been made by him in a speech:

The English who came first to this country were but an handful of people, forlorn, poor and distressed. My father was then sachem. He relieved their distresses in the most kind and hospitable manner. He gave them land to build and plant upon. He did all in his power to serve them. Others of their country men came and joined them.
Their numbers rapidly increased. My father's counselors became uneasy and alarmed lest, as they were possessed of firearms, which was not the case of the Indians, they should finally undertake to give law to the Indians, and take from them their country. They therefore advised him to destroy them before they should become too strong, and it should be too late. My father was also the father of the English. He represented to his counselors and warriors that the English knew many sciences which the Indians did not; that they improved and cultivated the earth, and raised cattle and fruits, and that there was sufficient room in the country for both the English and the Indians. His advise prevailed. It was concluded to give victuals to the English. They flourished and increased.
Experience taught that the advice of my father's counselors was right. By various means they got possessed of a great part of his territory. But he still remained their friend until he died. My elder brother became sachem. They pretended to suspect him of evil designs against them. He was seized and confined, and thereby thrown into sickness and died. Soon after I became sachem they disarmed all my people. They tried my people by their own laws and assessed damages against them which they could not pay. Their land was taken.
Sometimes the cattle of the English would come into the cornfields of my people, for they did not make fences like the English. I must then be seized and confined till I sold another tract of my country for satisfaction of all damages and costs. But a small part of the dominion of my ancestors remains. I am determined not to live till I have no country.

Although often-repeated, I have not been able to find a source for this statement. All references I have seen lead back either to History of Swansea or to a paper by Ru Ellen Ottery. History of Swansea refers to New England Magazine (New Series, Vol. 18, Old Series, Vol. 24, March 1898 to August 1898, Boston, Mass.), which contains the quote without any reference as to where it is from. And Ottery cites "Indian Papers" in the Connecticut State Archives (but she does not repeat this claim in a thesis written at a later date although it would have been relevant). I searched the Archive indexes, and, even with help from archivists there, was not able to find anything said by Metacomet. If anyone has more information about this quote, please let me know.

In January 1675, the body of Sassamon was discovered. He had previously been Metacomet's "secretary and chief councellor" and had just informed the English that the Wampanoag planned to attack them. It was rumored that Metacomet had ordered his death. In June, the English tried and executed three Wampanoag for his murder. This incensed the Wampanoag who felt the trial had been unfair because the court had refused to hear a witness for the defense. Later in June, the Wampanoag killed some English-owned cattle that had been trampling their corn, and a colonist from Swansea killed a Wampanoag in the dispute over the cattle. On June 24, Metacomet led a revenge attack on Swansea in which 8 English settlers were killed. This started the war. The colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut allied against Metacomet.

Metacomet sent warning to some families that he remembered had treated him or his father well, so they could escape before their towns were burned. (One was Sergeant Hugh Cole for his kindness, and another was James Brown of Swansea because Massasoit in his life had told Metacomet to show kindness to him.) The Nipmuck joined the Wampanoag and attacked and burned Brookfield. They were later joined by the Pocumtuck, Squakheag, and Norwottock, and attacked the town of Deerfield. After English troops led by Captain Lothrop were ambushed and 71 soldiers killed, the Puritans began persecuting Quakers and imprisoning or hanging neutral Indians. The Agawam tribe had been neutral, but after the English took some of their children hostage as a precautionary measure against an attack, they joined the Wampanoag. In October 1675, the towns of Hatfield, Northampton, and Springfield were attacked and burned by the Wampanoag and their allies. The Narragansett were initially neutral, but after an attack by the English -- the Great Swamp Massacre in which about 600 Narragansett were killed -- in December 1675, they joined Metacomet in the war. Together, they attacked Medfield, Groton, Sudbury, Warwick, Providence, and Marlborough, and burnt most of the towns down. They also attacked Plymouth, Rehoboth, Bridgewater, Hadly, Taunton, Scarborough, and Waymouth, but caused less damage. As the war drew on, many of the Indians who had converted to "Christianity" were persuaded to fight with the English. During the winter, the Wampanoag suffered a severe food shortage. Also, Metacomet had not managed to ally with the Mohawk, and was attacked by them. These factors eventually gave the English the advantage.

In May 1676, Captains Turner and Holyoke led a surprise attack on one of the largest Wampanoag and Nipmuck camps at Turner Falls on the Connecticut River, killing several hundred people as they tried to flee, destroying all their ammunition, equipment and food, and wiping out the camp. Some survivors fled north, and Metacomet, with only a few men left, returned to Mount Hope. Many of the Wampanoag's allies had left them as they suffered hunger and much loss of life. The Narragansett sachem Canonchet had been captured by a Mohegan allied with the English, and taken to Stonington where he was beheaded. Some of Metacomet's former allies were now working for the English. Benjamin Church, with Indian scouts, tracked Metacomet throughout the summer. By the late summer of 1676, most resistance to the English had been crushed. Groups of Wampanoag and their allies were captured or surrendered. Church and his scouts eventually caught Metacomet, who was killed in an ambush, shot by one of his own people. When the English knew it was Metacomet who had been killed, they decapitated and quartered his body and carried his head back to Plymouth, where in celebration, it was stuck on a pole and remained on public display for about 25 years. (This happened just 55 years after Metacomet's father, Massasoit, had helped the Pilgrims survive their first winter and made an agreement of peace and friendship with them.)

King Philip's War had been devastating to both sides. It was, proportionately, the most costly war in terms of human life in American history. Edward Randolph estimated that about 600 English and 3000 Indians were killed. Nearly every community in the region had been drawn into the conflict. Some English settlements were destroyed. Many Indian villages were destroyed, and entire tribes decimated. Of the prisoners taken, hundreds were sold into slavery in the West Indies and along the Barbary Coast of Africa, and others, mostly women and children, became slaves locally. Only a few Indian communities, who had assisted the English, and scattered remnants of their enemies, were left in New England. After the war, the English were the unopposed rulers of New England and felt free to expand without fear into former Indian territory.

I can see reason to mourn as a result of this war, but nothing to celebrate.

Various town and state days of thanksgiving were proclaimed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, mostly in New England. As we have seen, Connecticut began a tradition of annual Thanksgiving days in 1649. Plymouth began one in 1668, maintained until 1692 when it merged with Massachusetts Bay. The first American national day of thanksgiving, where all 13 colonies joined together in thanking God for the victory over the British at Saratoga, was declared by the Continental Congress on November 1, 1777. This is the proclamation:

Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with their gratitude their obligation to him for benefits received, and to implore such farther blessings as they stand in need of; and it having pleased him in his abundant mercy not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence but also smile upon us in the prosecution of a just and necessary war, for the defence and establishment of our unalianable rights and liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased in so great a measure to prosper the means used for the support of our troops and to crown our arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart Thursday, the 18th day of December next, for solemn thanksgiving and praise; that with one heart and one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor; and that together with their sincere acknowledgments and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their manifold sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and their humble and earnest supplication that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance; that it may please him graciously to afford his blessings on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the public council of the whole; to inspire our commanders both by land and sea, and all under them, with that wisdom and fortitude which may render them fit instruments, under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States the greatest of all blessings, independence and peace; that it may please him to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people and the labor of the husbandman, that our land may yield its increase; to take school and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under his nurturing hand, and to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.
And it is further recommended, that servile labor, and such recreation as, though at other times, innocent, may be unbecoming the purpose of this appointment, be omitted on so solemn an occasion.
Friday, October 3lst. I777. RESOLVED, That a committee of three be appointed to prepare a recommendation to the several states, to set apart a day for thanksgiving, for the signal success, lately obtained over the enemies of these United States: The members chosen, Mr. S. Adams, Mr. R. H. Lee, and Mr. Roberdeau.
Saturday, November 1st, 1777. The comittee appointed to prepare a recommendation to the several states; to set apart a day of public thanksgiving, brought in a report; which was taken into consideration, and agreed to.
Friday, November 7th.1777 . Congress ORDERED, That a duplicate of the recommendation to the several states to set apart a day of thanksgiving, signed by the president, be sent to the several states, and to General Washington and General Gates.

The Continental Congress also declared days of thanksgiving for the years 1778 to 1784. Here are some extracts:

1778, December 30:

It having pleased Almighty God, through the course of the present year, to bestow many great and manifold mercies on the people of these United States; and it being the indispensable duty of all men gratefully to acknowledge their obligations to him for benefits received: RESOLVED, That it be, and hereby is recommended to the legislative or executive authority of each of the said states, to appoint Wednesday, the 3oth of December next, to be observed as a day of public thanksgiving and praise, that all people may, with united hearts, on that day, express a just sense of his unmerited favors;.....

1779, December 9:

Whereas it becomes us humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God, with gratitude and praise for the wonders which his goodness has wrought in conducting our fore-fathers to this western world; for his protection to them and to their posterity amidst difficulties and dangers; for raising us, their children, from deep distress to be numbered among the nations of the earth; and for arming the hands of just and mighty princes in our deliverance; and especially for that he hath been pleased to grant us the enjoyments of health, and so to order the revolving seasons, that the earth hath produced her increase in abundance, blessing the labors of the husbandmen, and spreading plenty through the land; that he hath prospered our arms and those of our ally ; been a shield to our troops in the hour of danger, pointed their swords to victory and led them in triumph over the bulwarks of the foe; that he hath gone with those who went out into the wilderness against the savage tribes;...

1780, December 7:

Whereas it hath pleased Almighty God, the Father of all mercies amidst the vicissitudes and calamlties of war, to bestow blessings on the people of these states, which call for their devout and thanksful acknowledgments, more especially in the late remarkable interposition of his watchful providence, in rescuing the person of our commander in chief and the army from imminent dangers, at the moment when treason was ripened for execution; in prospering the labors of the husbandmen, and causing the earth to yeld its increase in plentiful harvests; and, above all, in continuing to us the enjoyment of the gospel of peace.
It is therefore recommended to the several states to set a part Thursday, the 7th day of December next, to be observed as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer; that all the people may assemble on that day to celebrate the praises of our Divine Benefactor; to confess our unworthiness of the least of his favors, and to offer our fervent supplications to the God of all grace; that it may please him to pardon our heinous transgressions and incline our hearts for the future to keep all his laws; to comfort and relieve our brethren who are any wise afliicted or distressed; to smile upon our husbandry and trade; to direct our public councils, and lead our forces, by land and sea, to victory; to take our illustrious ally under his special protection, and favor our joint councils and exertions for the establishment of speedy and permanent peace; to cherish all schools and seminaries of education, and to cause the knowledge of Christianity to spread over all the earth.
Done in Congress, this I8th day of October, I780, and in the fifth year of the independence of the United States of America. Wednesday, October I8th. I780.
Congress took into consideration the resolution reported for setting apart a day of thanksgiving: and prayer, and agreed to.

After 1784, there were no nationwide Thanksgivings until Washington became president in 1789. He was inaugurated on April 30, and his first presidential proclamation, issued on October 3, 1789, declared a national Thanksgiving Day:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and
Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me "to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:"
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.
A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Volume 1. James D. Richardson, ed., New York, Bureau of National Literature, Inc., p. 56.

Washington proclaimed another Thanksgiving Day for February 19, 1795. In it, he asks God to:

...impart all the blessing we posses, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.
H. S. J. Sickel. Thanksgiving: Its Source, Philosophy and History. Philadelphia: International Printing Co. p.154.

John Adams declared two national days of Thanksgiving. From his March 6, 1799 proclamation:

[T]hat [the citizen] shall call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His reighteous requisitions in time to come...
H. S. J. Sickel. Thanksgiving: Its Source, Philosophy and History. Philadelphia: International Printing Co. p.158.

James Madison declared two Thanksgiving days in 1815. Of the early presidents, Washington, Adams, and Madison were the only ones to declare national days of Thanksgiving. In each case, they were individual, not annual, observances. Annual days of Thanksgiving continued in New England, and began to spread to a few other states. Their spread to New York is described as follows: "Presbyterians observed Thanksgiving Day as proclaimed by the Synod of New York, and many Episcopal parishes held services of thanksgiving as provided for in their new Book of Common Prayer. The City Council of New York began, in 1799, to declare Thanksgiving Days. Governor De Witt Clinton drew on this widespread tradition of church and local proclamations of Thanksgiving when, in 1817, he issued a seemingly unobjectionable proclamation for a statewide Thanksgiving. However, he aroused the stubborn opposition of the farmers of Southampton and Easthampton on Long Island. . . . The farmers did not want to give up their traditional way of setting the date. Governor Clinton, however, prevailed, and New Yorkers have celebrated Thanksgiving in unison every autumn since." And, as Michigan was settled by New Englanders: "In 1824, the Legislative Council of the territory formally requested that Governor Lewis Cass proclaim a day of thanksgiving. Governor Cass, a son of New Hampshire, appointed Thursday, November 25, 1824, as Thanksgiving Day. The holiday was observed in the new territory that year and every year thereafter. This pattern - settlement of a territory by New Englanders, who then prevailed on the governor to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation - would repeat itself throughout the West." And Ohio's settlers "celebrated the holiday much as their neighbors did in Michigan - as a religious holiday with morning church services and dinner with family or neighbors in the afternoon. Sometimes, however, they were forced to act without the sanction of a gubernatorial proclamation. . . . The self-governing Congregational churches of these communities observed Connecticut's Thanksgiving Day on their own authority, but with expectations the governors of Ohio would soon begin to issue Thanksgiving proclamations as governors of New England had long done. . . . In 1838, a letter to the Cleveland Herald and Gazette asked, "Can you inform the people why Governor Vance has not appointed a day of thanksgiving in this state? If he knew how many Yankees there were in these parts, he would have signed a proclamation long ago. . . . We must have roast turkies, chicken and pumpkin pies and those delicacies so dear to the heart of the 'down east Yankee.'" . . . The year 1839 brought a new governor of Ohio who was somewhat more appreciative of the importance of Thanksgiving. But though Governor Wilson Shannon had the grace to proclaim Thanksgiving Day, he clumsily chose a Saturday, impelling the Herald on Wednesday, November 27, to remind, "All Yankees . . . that tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in Yankee-land," and prompting many Reserve Yankees to ignore the governor and celebrate on their traditional day. In 1840, Shannon came only a little closer to the mark, appointing a Tuesday in late December. After that, Ohio governors got the hang of things and issued an uninterrupted series of Thanksgiving proclamations for Thursdays in late November or early December."

The Confederate Congress declared a Thanksgiving service for July 28, 1861 for their victory at Bull Run, and another for September 18, 1862, for the Second Battle at Bull Run. But national Thanksgiving proclamations did not become an annual tradition until Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation of 1863. On April 13, 1862, Lincoln declared a Thanksgiving day for the Union victory at Shiloh. On March 30, 1863, Lincoln proclaimed a Day of National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer for April 30:

Whereas, the Senate of the United States devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliations:
And whereas, it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history: that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord:
And, inasmuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?
We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.
But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious Hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!
It behooves us then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.
Now, therefore, in compliance with the request and fully concurring in the view of the Senate, I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer.
And I do hereby request all the people to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.
All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high and answered with blessing no less than the pardon of our national sins and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace. In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington this 30th day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-seventh.
Abraham Lincoln.
H. S. J. Sickel. Thanksgiving: Its Source, Philosophy and History. Philadelphia: International Printing Co. p.146.

Lincoln declared another national Thanksgiving for August 6, 1863, for the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. On October 3, 1863, Lincoln declared a second Thanksgiving for that year to be on the last Thursday in November, this time not just for a specific event, but for God's goodness and blessings in general. Here is his proclamation:

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of the iron and coal as of our precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the imposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purpose, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.
In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this 3d day of October, A. D. 1863, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
Abraham Lincoln
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Roy P. Basler, ed. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1953.

Since 1863, Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations have been an annual tradition. Sarah Josepha Hale, a magazine editor, had been writing editorials and letters to governors and presidents campaigning for an annual national day of Thanksgiving for many years (different sources say 20 to 40) when Lincoln made his proclamations. On October 20, 1864, Lincoln again set the final Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving Day. Andrew Johnson followed with a Thanksgiving on December 7, 1865 (celebrating the Union victory). Since then each President has issued annual proclamations of national Thanksgiving. Most were for the last Thursday in November until 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving one week earlier to allow for a longer Christmas retail season. Public uproar against this decision caused him to move it back in 1941. On November 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed a bill that established the fourth Thursday in November as the national legal holiday of Thanksgiving.

So, where does today's American Thanksgiving come from?

History shows that it originated in the Thanksgiving days of New England, at first declared in response to particular events as they were experienced and not intended to be annual observances. They were the natural reactions of a very religious people who considered what happened to them as signs either of God's pleasure or displeasure with them. They were kept as days of prayer and going to church. Gradually, the tradition developed of annual days of Thanksgiving, not just for a specific event, but for God's blessings in general. This happened in New England first, then spread to the rest of the country. And what kind of events were thanks being given for? Many things, such as rain to end a drought, and safe arrival of ships after a difficult voyage; but also many for victory in various wars, some against Indians, and some battles in the War of Independence and the Civil War. None of the Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations mention the Plymouth Pilgrims or their celebration of 1621 until well after the annual, national Thanksgiving of today was established. (Herbert Hoover's proclamation of 1931 is the first to mention the Pilgrims.) While the Thanksgiving tradition of today developed gradually and does not go back to just the days of thanks for victory in wars against Indians (as some have claimed), the popular idea that Thanksgiving celebrates a time of peace and friendship between the English colonists and the Indians is not true either.

Since I have seen many descriptions of Thanksgiving that both claim that it was started by the Pilgrims in 1621 who were on friendly terms with the Wampanoag, and together with this talk of peace and friendship, quote the 1676 proclamation of thanks for victory in King Philip's War and claim that proclamation as the first Thanksgiving proclamation, seemingly oblivious to what it is about, I feel it is important to realize that this 1676 proclamation is giving thanks for the English victory in a war that almost wiped out the people who "the first Thanksgiving" of 1621 was supposed to be celebrated with! The war was provoked by the English attempt to steal the land of the Wampanoag and place them under English rule. While there were other events, both before and after, for which the English colonists had days of thanksgiving, we need to be aware of what happened in 1676. And anyone claiming the 1676 proclamation as the first Thanksgiving proclamation and displaying it as an example of something good, needs to be aware of what they are claiming.

On the other hand, the first proclamation in the modern tradition of a national, annual day of Thanksgiving, Lincoln's proclamation of 1863, while having nothing to do with the Pilgrims' first good harvest, shows a deep respect and thankfulness to God, an acknowledgement of national sins, and a plea for God's help to end the Civil War and heal the wounded country.

So, the history of Thanksgiving has both good and bad in it. But it is not what is commonly believed and taught.

I speak on behalf of myself only. Many people (around 50) have helped me in the search for this information. I welcome all comments.

Karen Nelte
August 9, 2001