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The Celebration of Thanksgiving, and the Origins of Our National Holiday

Kate Grindstaff, Seward House Museum Education and Outreach Coordinator

Most Americans enjoy the annual tradition of gathering together with family, reliving stories of the past, devouring turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, and giving thanks in late November. But what does this holiday actually mean on a national level, and where is it derived from? Various cultural values, historical events, and political decisions play into the celebration of our modern national Thanksgiving holiday.

As a Central New Yorker discussing the origins of Thanksgiving, it seems like a missed opportunity and oversight to not call attention to the Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee. Known widely as the Iroquois, although this is a French name derived from a warring nation’s derogatory term (1), the Haudenosaunee highly valued the practice of giving thanks to their environment and the world around them. I say this as an outsider looking into a separate culture, although this sentiment seems to be objectively presented as a truth. According to varying sources, the Haudenosaunee consider their Thanksgiving Address to be “the words that come before all else.”(2) While non-native Americans tend to celebrate giving thanks on one particular day in November, the Haudenosaunee ceremoniously give thanks before most gatherings and events all year round. To learn more about the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, please visit the Skä•noñh Center of Peace.

1“About Haudenosaunee Nationals Lacrosse,” Haudenosaunee Nationals, accessed November 21, 2023: 2“Home,” Skänoñh Great Law of Peace Center, accessed November 21, 2023:

It is impossible to discuss the origins of our federal holiday without remembering the “first Thanksgiving.” Most Americans with a common core elementary background remember learning about the landing of the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock in 1620. The pilgrims emigrated from England because of religious persecution and sought geographical refuge. Meanwhile, in what is now the coast of the state of Massachusetts, the Wampanoag nation, led by Massasoit, was experiencing a disastrous period of disease and death because of the spread of European contact. Enter the Pilgrims, completely unprepared to survive a heavy winter in an unknown climate. The Wampanoag needed numbers and military support, and the Pilgrims needed knowledge to remain alive and utilize new resources. This led to a year of mutual aid, a bountiful harvest, and a relatively unusual joint celebration between cultures. Although this “first Thanksgiving” involved both groups of communities and incorporated North American foods, the event itself was modeled mostly off of Puritan sentiments and traditional European harvest ceremonies, specifically the English Harvest Home. The period following this feast only remained interculturally peaceful for a few more decades, when differing values began to disintegrate relations. It was not long after Massasoit’s death that war broke out between the increased number of Puritans and the Wampanoag nation. Although the Wampanoag survived culturally over the centuries, they were militarily defeated in the 1670s. (3)

Over a hundred years later, days of thanksgiving continued to be sporadically celebrated by the people now living in America. After the founding of the United States, first president George Washington nationally declared certain days as those of thanksgiving. However, unlike how modern Americans may view the holiday’s meaning, the early precedent for these calls was religious and militant. Often, declarations were made immediately following victories in battles. After Washington, other presidents, including Adams and Madison, continued to call for days of thanksgiving on occasion. Typically, though, it was the governors of different states who would issue various thanksgiving days to be celebrated. (4)

3“Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth” (National Museum of the AmericanIndian):
4 Zachary Klitzman, “Lincoln’s Other Proclamation,” Lincoln’s Cottage 13 (2011): 1–4.

So how did we, as a country, land on the 4th Thursday of November as a federal holiday? The next step in this process of formalization and uniformity landed on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward, and Sarah Josepha Hale. In order to understand the OTHER monumental proclamation of 1863, one must first understand the incredibly intimate relationship between Lincoln and Seward. Both men were national political leaders of the United States by the end of the 1850s and, while both actively protested against the expansion of slavery, their political reasoning often differed. In fact, both ran against each other during the 1860 Republican Convention for president, where Seward was seen universally as the front-running candidate. Nevertheless, after a series of political missteps on Seward’s part, and strategic stumping and political tide-turning on Lincoln’s part, the latter was nominated and then elected president. Just after the 1860 election, the secession winter began, and seven states abandoned the Union as tensions rose towards the onset of the Civil War. Lincoln formed his “team of rivals” and asked Seward to be his Secretary of State, and one of his top advisors. Although the two experienced men began their relationship with a significant power struggle, they became extremely close. Quite quickly, it became clear that Lincoln would heavily rely on Seward’s opinion and advice on most matters, domestic and foreign. He also would seek edits and thoughts from Seward in regards to his most famous papers and speeches, including his Inaugural Address, Gettysburg Address, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Such was the situation in the fall of 1863. After more than two years of hard, bloody war with little military achievement on the Union side, the Battle of Gettysburg finally suggested a shift in morale. As mentioned before, calls for thanksgiving were often made in the aftermath of a victorious battle, and Gettysburg was no different. In fact, in an effort to maintain national morale even before 1863, Lincoln had issued a few other thanksgiving proclamations during the war. However, the post-Gettysburg proclamation was specifically written to unify the nation and express thankfulness for national progress in the midst of tragedy.5 Seward was one the top advisors urging Lincoln to do precisely this. He also thought that, by claiming a national day of Thanksgiving, the Union could strike a cultural blow against the Confederacy. Years later, Seward recalled his conversation with Lincoln in vivid detail:

“They say, Mr. President, that we are stealing away the rights of the States. So I have come to-day to advise you that there is another State right I think we ought to steal.”

Mr. Lincoln looked up from his papers, with a quizzical expression. “Well, Governor, what do you want to steal now ?” (6)

Lincoln agreed, and Seward produced a draft of a national Thanksgiving Proclamation, which was then issued on October 3, 1863. This proclamation not only established the modern sentiment behind the celebration, but also federally recognized a specific day, the last Thursday of November, to be an annual holiday. (7)

Another key voice in this decision belonged to Sarah Josepha Hale, who advocated for the national recognition of a Thanksgiving holiday for years prior. On September 28, 1863, Hale wrote a letter to Lincoln, stating this sentiment as she had for many presidents since 18468. Perhaps by coincidence (and perhaps not– as editor of Godey’s Lady Book, Hale reached 150,000-plus subscribers 9), Seward also made a statement in favor of a national holiday just a couple days later. Lincoln issued other Thanksgiving proclamations afterwards, including one that occurred at the same time the following year. This consistency standardized the tradition. Later, the holiday date was modified by Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the 4th Thursday in November, which is celebrated to this day. (10)

5I bid.
6 William Seward and Frederick Seward, William H. Seward; an Autobiography from 1801 to 1834 (New York, New York: Derby & Miller, 1891), 193-195.
7 Zachary Klitzman, “Lincoln’s Other Proclamation,” Lincoln’s Cottage 13 (2011): 1–4.
8I bid.
9 Barbara Maranzani, “How the ‘mother of Thanksgiving’ Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday,”, October 3, 2013:
10 Zachary Klitzman, “Lincoln’s Other Proclamation,” Lincoln’s Cottage 13 (2011): 1–4.

Together, religious values, harvest cycles, intercultural relationships, battles, nationalism, respect for food and the environment, and centuries of global precedent came to create our modern Thanksgiving tradition and federal holiday. Just as families join together this season to celebrate giving thanks, these human traditions and historical events have married each other to create a vibrant expression of American culture.


“About Haudenosaunee Nationals Lacrosse.” Haudenosaunee Nationals. Accessed November 21, 2023. nals-lacrosse.

“Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth.” National Museum of the American Indian, Accessed November 21, 2023. t_Study_Guide.pdf

“Home.” Skänoñh Great Law of Peace Center. Accessed November 21, 2023.

Klitzman, Zachary. “Lincoln’s Other Proclamation.” Lincoln’s Cottage 13 (2011): 1–4.

Maranzani, Barbara. “How the ‘mother of Thanksgiving’ Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday.”, October 3, 2013. ksgiving.

Seward, William, and Frederick Seward. William H. Seward; an autobiography from 1801 to 1834. New York: Derby & Miller, 1891.