After making landfall considerably north of its intended destination in "northern" Virginia, the Mayflower anchored at Plymouth Rock (in present-day Massachusetts) in November 1620. Half the ship's crew and its Pilgrim passengers died from pneumonia and extreme hardship that first winter. The other half survived thanks to Squanto, an English-speaking member of the local Wampanaog tribe, who helped the Pilgrims through their first year in the "New World". After a bountiful harvest the following fall, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford declared that a feast would be held to give thanks for the harvest and invited Squanto, his family members and the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit, to take part.
The Thanksgiving feast held in 1621 lasted three days. The spread included goose, turkey, duck, eel, clams, cod, bass and venison, as well as corn, barley, plums and cornbread. The colonists held a second feast in 1623 when heavy rain, for which the Pilgrims had prayed, ended a severe drought. In a breathtaking example of biting the hand that feeds, Mather the Elder delivered a sermon that year, thanking God for sending smallpox to clear the land of the indigenous American people.
In the next 200 years, Thanksgiving feasts were held intermittently throughout New England. And though many, including Thomas Jefferson, were opposed to celebrating what was viewed as a strictly local religious observance as a national holiday, the custom caught on. So, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving. Each president thereafter annually proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day holiday, usually designating the fourth Thursday in November. In 1941, the U.S. Congress officially made the fourth Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving Day holiday. So, have a Happy Thanksgiving!