The History of Thanksgiving: An Introduction

Alice Hopkinson explores the history of Thanksgiving and challenges us to rethink the accepted narrative.

Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ of 1621, something that holds a deep, traditional meaning, and has become enshrined in the American cultural conscience. Since George Washington’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, Presidents have used the holiday to convey ideals that lie outside the sphere of traditional religiosity and notions of simply ‘giving thanks’ for a bountiful harvest. Proceeding years saw successive Presidents devote their attention towards reaffirming the values of the Founding American Republic, discussing events of the previous year or addressing broader issues affecting the Nation. Whilst this is certainly indicative of a progressing American cultural identity, it is emblematic of Thanksgiving finding its own origin for tradition and subsequently evolving into something far greater and disparate from what it meant at its conception. 

Thanksgiving has developed from a solemn and simple Colonial observance of thanks into an enterprising celebration that encompasses a variety of values, yet holds a far more sinister meaning for the Native American people supposedly crucial to its founding legend. 

The ‘First Thanksgiving’ at Plymouth

Those who first settled in the Massachusetts Bay area were those who retreated from England following indignation and persecution for their religious practices. As a somewhat more extreme derivative group of Puritans, the Pilgrims sought to deviate from the practise of religion that had been reformed under King James I, and were therefore at severe risk of persecution if they were to remain in England. Fleeing to the New World in search of religious freedom, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and on Native Wampanoag territory- something that is frequently omitted from contemporary retellings.

Famine and disease had been rampant throughout the voyage, with these poor conditions only becoming worse as the Pilgrims struggled to provide for themselves and build a self-sustaining settlement in this new environment. After a particularly tough winter the Pilgrims received invaluable guidance and assistance from the Wampanoag tribe, who graciously taught the settlers how to live off the land. It is at this instance that the ‘myth’ around the story of the first Thanksgiving becomes increasingly prevalent. The Pilgrims in return thanked the Wampanoag people and, with the first harvest produced, held a dinner to acknowledge their kindness, enshrining in tradition the act of holding a celebration of thanks for instances of recognising gratitude.

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Is this the whole story?

In reality, the peace between the settlers and Native Americans was short lived. Relations between the two groups quickly deteriorated and tensions became more aggravated, particularly with the rapid expansion of European settlements and the vast influx of migration that occurred from the 1630s. As a result, Native Americans were forced out of land that had once been theirs and have since been subject to rampant cultural erasure. This highlights the stark contrast between the seemingly peaceful relationship between the Pilgrims and Native Americans seen in portrayals of the ‘First Thanksgiving’, and the more sinister reality. 

The origin of tradition

Despite the 1621 Thanksgiving being famously recognised as the ‘first’, it is important to acknowledge that the tradition of giving thanks was a precedent that long predated the 1620 Mayflower voyage, and something that was essentially imported by the European settlers. Colonists observed thanksgivings regularly and even sustained this practice through the Revolutionary era, observing the celebrations for bountiful harvests, victory in battle or for acts of seemingly divine benevolence that had transpired. 

Thanksgiving as a holiday

With George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation offering gratitude for the recent ratification of the Constitution, formation of the American Republic and preservation of “safety and happiness… for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed”, it became possible to acknowledge the shift in meaning of Thanksgiving as a designated holiday held in the public conscience. Whilst Washington does acknowledge the religious sentiments of the occasion and gives thanks for fortune in harvest, he uses similar language to that found in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and spends the majority of his Proclamation affirming the founding values of the Republic- going to great lengths to ensure the people maintain the values enshrined in the nation’s founding documents. 

Presidents since Washington have used Thanksgiving as a means to address the nation in a manner that is somewhat more informal than through official Proclamations or speeches. In each Proclamation, traditional religious values are consistently affirmed, as is the notion of giving thanks to God for the fortunes of the nation. However, each address is unique to the President and is in many ways a way in which to trace the narrative of American history in accordance with the fundamental issues concerning the nation. Last year President Biden marked the 400th anniversary of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ by acknowledging the “generosity and support of the Wampanoag” and compared their actions to those who have dedicated their time to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. A very topical Proclamation, it is one that dedicates itself more to reaffirming familial and traditional values as opposed to those of the nation and Founding Fathers- fitting, considering the context in which it was written. 

Contemporary meaning

Culturally, Thanksgiving has shed much of its religious sentiment in recent years and has become almost unrecognisable from its origin. Maintaining its association to harvests, it has become more familial, with it being tradition for many families to hold a Thanksgiving dinner that incorporates much of the food typically found on the North American continent, the turkey being the most pertinent example of such.

Furthermore, it has evolved to accommodate America as a consumerist nation that thrives on business and a booming economy, with contemporary traditions such as the Macy’s Day Parade, American football games and the amusing White House turkey pardon being the focus of attention throughout the country.

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These new and emerging customs demonstrate how Thanksgiving as a cultural tradition has taken on a new meaning that has adapted and evolved in line with the changing American people. Yet aside from the jubilations brought on by the holiday, it is paramount to bear in mind that these traditions exist only for some. Many Native Americans choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving, serving as a reminder that a whole representative body has been practically omitted from the mainstream teaching of Thanksgiving. This highlights the importance of preserving these narratives. 

To hear a continuation of this discussion, join us on November 25 2022, 5pm GMT/12pm BST.

Author: Alice Hopkinson

House Highlights: Summer Break @ Ben’s House

Here are some of the highlights from our incredible summer season of family events at Benjamin Franklin House!

Over the month of August we held a number of events as part of our Summer Break @ Ben’s House programme. We learned all about Benjamin Franklin, 36 Craven Street and Georgian Britain as well as getting creative with lots of arts and crafts activities.

In our first week we recreated Franklin’s famous Key and Kite experiment using a Tesla Coil in our Student Science Centre. We each got an opportunity to create a bolt of electricity using our Windhurst Machine before heading down to Franklin’s Parlour to build some decorative kites!

Our second week focussed on the art of calligraphy and the importance of letters in 18th century communication. We deciphered one of Franklin’s own letters before writing our own using dip pens and ink. The workshop was certainly the messiest of them all with inky fingers all round! We also created our own parchment paper with some good old fashioned tea-staining.

The focus of our third week moved away from Franklin and on to one of our other famous residents, the anatomist William Hewson, who lived in the House from 1770-1774. We learned about the anatomy school once located in the House and examined our collection of bones that were unearthed in our basement. We then became archaeologists for the day and explored our collection of archaeology tools and artefacts. To end the session we built model skeletons before creating our own skeleton diagrams using cotton wool buds and glue!

The final week of Summer Break @ Ben’s House explored the history of portraiture and saw us learn some valuable skills in art history. We deciphered the symbols in several famous portraits from history before examining a collection of Franklin portraits to learn more about the man behind the canvass. We then got our paint pallets out to create portraits of ourselves to take home and frame for all to see!

Children’s Summer Fair 2022

This year, Benjamin Franklin House is collaborating with the William Morris Society and Fulham Palace for an exciting Children’s Summer Fair to end the Summer Holidays!

Join us on Saturday 27th August for an exiting day of family friendly activities.

Get stuck in with the range of activities on offer:

  • The William Morris Society will be getting inspired by our latest exhibition on May Morris by recreating her Orange Tree in 3D form and creating beautiful tissue paper flowers.
  • Benjamin Franklin House will be exploring letters from the past with the chance to write your own 18th century letters using quills, ink and parchment!
  • Fulham Palace will be bringing along some mystery objects from the past. Get curious and guess what they are, who used them, and when and where you think they come from. Complete with a chance to get into costume!

The event will be taking place at The William Morris Society, 26 Upper Mall, London, W6 9TA and is FREE! Although we do request that you book tickets to secure a place as there are limited slots available. You can book your tickets here.

Summer Break @ Ben’s House 2022

This Summer, Benjamin Franklin House is holding an exciting season of family events across the month of August. Join us at 36 Craven Street for a series of fun filled family days that explore the history of one of London’s best hidden gems.

Each event delves into a different aspect of the rich history of the House, from Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with lightning to the art of Georgian portraiture; 18th century letter writing to secret anatomy schools in the basement!

Across August we have four exciting events taking place; you can find out more and book your tickets here;

Each event takes place on Tuesdays & Wednesdays, 10:30m to 12:30pm and are all FREE!

Suitable for KS2 but all ages welcome!

Science on Stage 2022

On Monday 13th June 2022, Benjamin Franklin House joined forces with the Royal Institute of Great Britain (Ri) and National Physical Laboratory (NPL) to deliver one of the most exciting editions of Science on Stage to date!

Science on Stage, held in partnership with The Royal Institution, illuminates the National Curriculum through a variety of activities which demonstrate how the work of Franklin and scientists at the Ri arose from a spirit of awe and curiosity about the world in which they lived. The content is appropriate for upper Key Stage 2 children with the focus on a range of learning styles to enable all children to benefit from the experience.

This year we welcome almost 400 school children and staff from schools across London into the Faraday Theatre at the Ri for an exciting day of demonstrations. The show kicked off with our very own Education Manager, Henry, whose presentation on the true nature of lightning electrified the audience from start to finish. There was a thunderous applause as he lit up the room with our Tesla Coil to give a miniature Ben Franklin a loud zap of lightning!

Our presentation was then followed by two of the Ri’s very own presenters who demonstrated some exhilarating experiments with fire. They created explosions left right and centre as well as a spectrum of brightly coloured flames. Perhaps one of the most memorable moments of the day came when they burned a few too many onion rings in one experiment, which resulted in a bonfire-sized flame erupting toward the ceiling and shattering the glass bowl beneath it!

Following a short break the show was then rounded off with a fantastic demonstration from Andrew Hanson from the NPL who explored all of the fun that can be had with liquid nitrogen. Him and his team shattered flowers, created a bubbling mass of smoke, and revealed some of the most interesting facts about temperatures found across the planet and galaxy.

This is an annual event and following the overwhelming success of the 2022 show, we are already looking forward to 2023. Science on Stage is completely free of charge for all visiting schools, however tickets are limited and given on a first come first serve basis. If you are interested in bringing your pupils to Science on Stage 2023 please contact our Education Manager ( who will be able to add you to our events mailing list so that you don’t miss out on future ticket releases!

Sister Schools 2022 – Looking for classes!

Attention all KS2 and KS3 teachers! We are re-launching our Sister School’s Programme for Autumn 2022 and are looking for classes to participate in this fantastic opportunity!

In collaboration with Paul Revere House in Boston, Massachusetts (USA) the Sister Schools project is a Benjamin Franklin House programme linking schools in the UK with their counterparts in the United States.

Sister Schools allows children to participate in a fun and collaborative curriculum based on the amazing lives of Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere. Themes include our shared heritage, citizenship, and science and innovation.

The programme will last 6-8 weeks, include a free trip to Benjamin Franklin House, a virtual tour of Paul Revere House, school visits from the Education Manager and a Teacher’s Pack including pre-planned session outlines and activities.

We will be launching our new pairings in September 2022 and are on the look out for KS2-3 classes of 30 to participate in the programme. If you are interested in learning more about Sister Schools and would like to view the Teacher’s Pack, please contact our Education Manager (


Frank(lin) Views: Rory Sutherland

Frank(lin) Views podcast features thought leaders across disciplines on themes associated with Benjamin Franklin – the great diplomat, writer, inventor, scientist and more – including leadership, the purpose of history, modern day publishing, and diplomacy.

In today’s episode of Frank(lin) Views, Rory Sutherland, a British advertising executive and Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group, talks lessons in marketing and advertising with our Founding Director, Márcia Balisciano.

Outreach: Become an Inventor

In May 2022, our Education Manager travelled to Watling Park Primary School in Edgware (London) to deliver one of our Outreach Programmes to two groups of Year 5 students. In each session, the pupils were asked to follow in Franklin’s footsteps and become inventors!

The classes produced some fantastic ideas, from innovative fashion booths to money guns, translator machines to friction shoes! At the end of each session, the pupils pitched their inventions to the rest of the class for the group to decide on which to invest in.

Our Education Manager has selected his favourites from the two sessions and these can be found in the gallery below!


Frank(lin) Views: Nigel Newton CBE

Frank(lin) Views podcast features thought leaders across disciplines on themes associated with Benjamin Franklin – the great diplomat, writer, inventor, scientist and more – including leadership, the purpose of history, modern day publishing, and diplomacy.

In this episode of Frank(lin) Views, Benjamin Franklin House Director, Dr Marcia Balisciano, sits down with Nigel Newton CBE, founder and chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, to discuss the evolution of the publishing sector, his career so far, and how he came to publish Harry Potter with a little help from his daughter.