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8 Little-Known Facts About Thanksgiving
The First Thanksgiving, reproduction of an oil painting by J.L.G. Ferris, early 20th century. (Source: Library of Congress)

8 Little-Known Facts About Thanksgiving

Editor's note: A year ago, in the November 2011 issue of TheBlaze Magazine, we published the "Top 8 Little-Known Facts About Thanksgiving," written by our own Meredith Jessup. We present it here as a little Thanksgiving gift to you.

Happy Thanksgiving from your friends at TheBlaze. 



Historians believe that first Thanksgiving feast included turkey, waterfowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin and squash. So how did turkey become a fixture of modern Thanksgiving feasts? It may have something to do with Pilgrim Gov. William Bradford’s own accounts in which he noted that, “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.” Thus, a tasty tradition was born.



No one actually knows. Many credit Harry S Truman for being the first president to pardon a turkey, but the Truman Presidential Library admits there’s no documentation to substantiate that claim.

Truman’s successor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, admitted he ate the two turkeys presented to him at the White House for Thanksgiving each year during his two terms in office.

When President John F. Kennedy was presented with a turkey wearing a sign reading, “Good Eatin’, Mr. President,” Kennedy simply responded, “Let’s just keep him.”

When President Ronald Reagan was asked about possible pardons for Lt. Col. Oliver North and national security advisor John Poindexter in the Iran-Contra affair in 1987, he joked about pardoning a turkey, but the practice of “officially” pardoning the bird wasn’t formalized until 1989. Since then, each president has “pardoned” a turkey each year, allowing it to be spared from the roaster to instead live out the rest of its natural life.

Some pardoned poultry have been shipped off to local parks around Washington and even as far as the Disneyland resort in California. In 2010, the turkeys pardoned by President Obama were sent to live at Mount Vernon, the estate and home of our first president, George Washington.



Since the days of the Pilgrims, festivals of Thanksgiving for autumn harvest were observed sporadically in local communities across the American colonies. But in 1789, a Massachusetts congressman, Elias Boudinot, proposed that the new country should observe a national day of Thanksgiving to thank God for blessing the American people with freedoms preserved in our Constitution. As a result, President George Washington proclaimed that all Americans could observe “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” on Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789.

The tradition continued until 1815 when President James Madison declared that April 13 would be a national day of Thanksgiving. Madison’s was the last such proclamation issued by a president until Abraham Lincoln did so in 1862.



One of the most ardent advocates for an annual national day of Thanksgiving was Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Ladies Magazine and “Godey’s Lady’s Book.” Hale began lobbying for such a day in 1827 by printing articles in her magazines and writing to elected officials. After 36 years of persistence, Hale won her battle. Buoyed by the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln proclaimed that Nov. 26, 1863 would be a national Thanksgiving Day and that Thanksgiving would be observed each year on the fourth Thursday of November.



Since Lincoln’s original proclamation, only one president has failed to mark Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday in November. As president, Franklin D. Roosevelt used his authority to reschedule Thanksgiving. In 1939, FDR caused a stir by declaring that Thanksgiving would occur on the third Thursday in November instead of the fourth. Why? Roosevelt thought moving the holiday up by one week would help Depression-era merchants by giving them more selling days before Christmas.

Despite popular resistance that objected to rescheduling Thanksgiving Day events such as football games and parades, Roosevelt repeated the switch again in 1940. By the following year, however, Congress fought back with a joint resolution officially establishing the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday.



Having landed at Plymouth, Mass., too late in the season to plant crops, the Pilgrims survived their first winter in the New World only with the help of local native Indian tribes. Despite losing half their population during the winter of 1620, food and farming assistance from Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe helped the Pilgrims build the colony at Plymouth. For this, the Pilgrims gave thanks to God and Gov. William Bradford praised the leader as a “[special] instrument sent from God.”



The following year, the Plymouth colonists joined the Wampanoag tribe and Squanto to sign a treaty of peace and friendship. Squanto helped the colonists produce viable crops, and after a successful harvest in the autumn of 1621, Gov. William Bradford proclaimed a day of prayer and thanks. Two years later, drought would once again put the colony in jeopardy. After the Puritan colonists prayed for rain and it was delivered, the Pilgrims gave thanks, once again tying the social event to their faith in God.



South of Plymouth, the English settlers in Virginia celebrated their own day of thanks in November 1619, a year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth. The 38 settlers who disembarked from their ships on the banks of the James River declared at that time (from the original text): “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

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