Modern Thanksgiving has its direct origins in American history. In 1609, a group of Puritans fleeing religious persecution in England moved to Holland. They lived in Holland for a number of years until a group of English investors -- the Merchant Adventurers -- financed a trip for more than 100 passengers to the New World.
On Sept. 6, 1620, they set sail on a ship called the Mayflower, leaving from England and arriving in the New World after 65 days. They settled in a town called Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts. The Pilgrims' first winter was so harsh that fewer than 50 of the group survived the season.
On March 16, 1621, an Abnaki Indian named Samoset entered the Plymouth settlement. He welcomed the Pilgrims in English, and the next day returned with another American Indian named Squanto, who spoke English well. With Squanto's help, the Pilgrims were able to survive in the New World. He taught them how to get sap out of the maple trees, how to avoid plants that were poisonous and how to plant corn and other crops.
The harvest was very successful, due in large part to help from the American Indians. The Pilgrims had enough food for the winter and had learned how to survive in the New World. Plymouth Colony's Governor, William Bradford, decided to throw a celebratory feast and invited the colony's American Indian neighbors to take part. The American Indians brought food as well, and the celebration lasted for three days.
Historians believe that this celebration took place sometime in the fall. And although there are very few clues to reconstruct the feast, some scholars believe that food items, like venison and fish, were the main sources of protein, rather than turkey. It's also thought that the food preparation would have been greatly influenced by American Indian traditions since the Puritans had been instructed by American Indians on how to cultivate and cook items [source: Bergland].
Many view the first Thanksgiving as an example of the possibility of great respect and cooperation between two different cultures. But others see it as a symbol of the colonists' eventual persecution of the American Indians. Sadly, the friendly spirit of the first Thanksgiving and the 50-year period of peace that followed is one exception in a long history of bloodshed between Native American tribes and European settlers.
In 1970, some American Indians began observing a Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day to remember the violence and discrimination suffered by their ancestors. The Day of Mourning is observed by gathering at the top of "Coles Hill," which overlooks Plymouth Rock.
In the next section, we'll look at how Thanksgiving spread throughout the colonies, eventually becoming an official U.S. holiday.