The History of Thanksgiving For Kids

Imagine yourself sitting around a large bonfire.  The year is 1621 and you have spent the last year travelling from Europe to America on a boat. The journey was very hard.  When you finally arrived in the “new world” you faced a very hard winter. You and your family lived on the boat through the winter, together with other passengers.  It was extremely cold and there was not much to eat.  But all of that has changed.  As you sit waiting, you see that people are cooking up a huge feast. You smell the cooking meat and vegetables. it makes your mouth water. The cooks include people from Europe that you were on the boat with, and Native Americans who have come to celebrate with you.  It is the first Thanksgiving celebration in America, and you are ready to eat!

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States and other countries. But how did this holiday begin?  Where did it start and why?

The story starts in 1620 when a small ship named the “Mayflower” left from England. On board were 102 passengers.  They were all people from different religions that were feeling unwelcome in Europe.  They wanted to leave to find a new home where they could practice their religion freely.  There were also people onboard who were excited about the idea of buying land, which they couldn’t afford in Europe. They hoped to find a new life and become wealthy in the New World.

The Mayflower made a long and difficult journey across the Atlantic Ocean that lasted 66 days! Eventually, they landed at Cape Cod.  This was much further north than where they were hoping to land, which was at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower travelled to Massachusetts Bay and the travellers disembarked, or arrived and came ashore.  They decided to settle, or make a home, in the area and they began building a village, which is now called Plymouth.

The people who started building the settlement were called “pilgrims”.  Pilgrim means a traveller or settler in a new land. The pilgrims in Plymouth did not have time to build houses to live in before the first winter came.  The winter was very cold and harsh, so most of the pilgrims remained on the Mayflower ship for the winter. They were hungry and cold living on the ship. Many people developed scurvy, which happens when you don’t eat enough fruits or vegetables.  Many also caught diseases that spread easily amongst the crowded living conditions. 

By the end of the winter, only half of the Mayflower’s 102 original passengers were still alive.That spring, in March 1621, the people who were still alive moved off the boat and onto shore to start building their homes. While they were settling on shore, an Abenaki Native American came and greeted them in English. Everyone was shocked to see that he was friendly and that he spoke English. 

A few days later, he returned with another Native American man named Squanto.  Years before Squanto had been kidnapped by Englishmen and brought to England.  But he later returned to America and could now speak English. Squanto became friends with the pilgrims and could see that they needed help.  The small group of 50 or so people were all weak and starving and many of them were ill.  Squanto felt bad for them so he taught the pilgrims how to grow corn, how to fish in the rivers and how to extract sap from maple trees. 

Squanto also helped the pilgrim settlers to form an alliance with a local Native tribe, the Wampanoag. An alliance is a bond or union between two groups that pledge to support each other. 

Later that year, in the fall of 1621, the pilgrims’s first corn harvest was successful.  They had an abundance of corn and were able to eat.  The Governor of the group, William Bradford, organized a feast to celebrate the harvest.  He invited all the pilgrims in the community and their Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The feast lasted for three days.  While no one wrote down exactly what they ate, we do know that it was an amazing feast for the time, and likely included chicken, deer, corn, lobster, seal, shellfish, and possibly turkey. 

This fest is now remembered as America’s “first Thanksgiving”.  The pilgrim’s likely didn’t call it that, as they would not have known that this feast would turn into a holiday. They also played games and had fun during the three days with their guests.  They considered this celebration a way to give thanks to God and nature for the harvest and alliance with the Wampanoag people. 

The dishes that the pilgrims prepared were likely made using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. The pilgrims did not have an oven and the sugar supply on the Mayflower had run out by the fall of 1621, so the meal did not include pies, cakes or desserts. But the people were happy to have a harvest meal and party and were happy that their nutrition and health had improved compared to last year — and mostly that they were still alive. That is a lot to be thankful for!

The pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in the fall of 1623. In the two years between, there had been a long drought.  A drought is a long period of time in which it doesn’t rain so everything dries up or doesn’t grow.  Because of the drought, there had been no harvest in the fall of 1622 and people were very hungry.  In 1623, the farming had been good again and they all celebrated as they had before. The practice of fasting, or not eating for a period of time, followed by having a large thanksgiving celebration started to become common practice in other New England settlements outside of Plymouth as well. 

Later, during the American Revolution, the government designated a couple of days of thanksgiving a year.  In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation.In his speech, he asked Americans to show that they are grateful for the happy ending to the war of independence that Americans had just won and the new constitution, or written framework for the country’s rules, structure and order.  Other presidents after George Washington also designated a couple of days of thanksgiving to remember these events. 

In 1817, New York became the first state to have an official Thanksgiving holiday. After that, other states started adopting their own Thanksgiving holiday, with each one being celebrated on a different day. However, the tradition hadn’t spread to the south, and most southern states hadn’t heard of Thanksgiving holiday for a long time. 

One woman decided that she wanted to change this.  She wanted to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale.  She was a writer and wrote many articles and books and even wrote the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.   Sara started a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday and she worked on this for 36 years!  A campaign is a planned effort to make something happen or change. She published articles in newspapers and sent letters to politicians.  Eventually her efforts paid off, when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. He scheduled it to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November. Sara was then known ever after as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving was celebrated annually, or once a year, on this day until 1939.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in order to help stores make more money during the Great Depression. However, people didn’t like the change, and so he ultimately moved it back to the original date in 1941.

Although the original Thanksgiving celebrations were to celebrate the end of the American war of independence and the new constitution, modern American Thanksgiving is quite different.  Now the celebrations center on cooking a turkey and sharing a large meal with family and friends. 

While turkeys are the main dish at most American households for Thanksgiving, it may not have actually been on the menu for the pilgrims’ first thanksgiving feast in 1621. Today, more than 90% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving.  And there are many different ways that people prepare the bird. Most like to cook it in the oven. But some people deep-fry it or smoke it, or find a variety of other ways to make the turkey dish new and interesting.

Other traditional food that Americans eat at this holiday include stuffing or dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.  These are all foods that are “in season” at that time of year.  “In season” means that the fruits and vegetables used are ready to be harvested at that time. 

Another common tradition at Thanksgiving is volunteering.  Many Americans spend Thanksgiving Day doing volunteer activities in their communities.  These activities include holding food drives to collect food for the poor or hosting free dinners for people who are struggling. 

Parades have also become an important part of the Thanksgiving holiday in cities and towns throughout the United States.  One of the largest and most famous is the Macy’s department store parade in New York City.  This parade started in 1924 and was intended to give businesses a chance to celebrate the holiday and advertise their store at the same time.  Today, many Americans tune in on TV to watch the Macy’s parade at Thanksgiving.  The parade follows a 2 ½ mile route and features marching bands, performers, floats and giant balloons.

Starting in the 1950s, the president of the United States has a transition of “pardoning” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year.  This means that those 1 or 2 birds don’t get killed to be eaten, but instead get to go back to living on a farm for the rest of their lives.

Even though Thanksgiving is a modern American tradition, there are similar annual celebrations of harvest that take place all over the world and throughout history. In ancient times, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all held large feasts to say thank you to their gods after the fall harvest.  Thanksgiving also has a lot in common with the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. And Native Americans have a long tradition of celebrating fall harvest with feasts and parties. These traditions are older than the American thanksgiving in 1621, so may have had an influence on the idea to hold a feast. 

Does your family celebrate Thanksgiving?  If so, what are some of your family’s traditions?  When you eat your holiday meal this year, think about the first American thanksgiving at Plymouth.  How do you think that would have been different?  What are some of the things that you are thankful for this year?  However you plan to celebrate, we at Bedtime History wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!  

Sitting Bull for Kids

Close your eyes and imagine you are in the middle of a battle in the American wilderness. All around you, American soldiers dressed in stiff blue jackets load their guns and fire at the enemy. Running at them are Native American warriors dressed in loin cloths and leather. They are yelling and charging the soldiers with weapons raised. They clash in battle and fight ferociously. Around you echo the sounds of metal clashing on metal, gunfire, and people crying out. Then as you turn around, your eye catches a peaceful sight.  There in the middle of the fight scene sits a Native man with his legs crossed.  He peacefully packs a pipe full of tobacco and lights in on fire.  He sits silently and smokes while men fight all around him.  This man is one of the famous American Indians, Sitting Bull. 

Sitting Bull was born around 1831. He was one of the Hunkpapa people, a Lakota Sioux tribe that lived in the Great Plains area in what is now known as North and South Dakota. When he was born his family called him “Jumping Badger”.  

Later, his parents changed his name.  He was quiet and deliberate and they didn’t think “Jumping Badger” fit him.  Deliberate means careful and cautious.  His parents gave him the nickname “Slow” instead and he was called this as a child. 

Slow’s father was the chief, which meant someday he would be the chief of his people. When he turned 10, “Slow” killed his first buffalo. Hunting buffalo was very dangerous, but the tribe depended on buffalo for their meat for survival. They ate their meat and used their skins for clothes and shelter. Slow’s family was proud of his first buffalo kill and celebrated to honor him. When he was 14, “Slow” and others from his tribe snuck into an enemy tribe’s village and stole food and other items. This is called a “raid” and was common for tribes in the Great Plains to fight and steal things from each other for survival. Because of “Slow’s” bravery during the raid, his father gave up his own name and gave it to his son.  From then on, “Slow” became known as Tatanka-Iyotanka, or “Sitting Bull.” 

Around this time, the government of the United States wanted settlers to move into the western states even though Sitting Bull’s people already lived there. To settle means to make a permanent home. This meant that Sioux Lakota tribes would have to leave and find a new place to live even though they had lived on these lands for man years.

But Sitting Bull and his family refused to leave and fought against the U.S. government and the people who tried to take over their land. The government sent the army to fight Sitting Bull and his people.  As a young man, Sitting Bull became famous for his fighting skills and people all over the United States heard about him and became afraid of the stories about him. 

In 1872 the Northern Pacific Railroad was trying to build a railroad across the United States. It ran through Sitting Bulls land, so he and the Sioux people were determined to block it. When they did, the U.S. Army was called in to try to remove them and the conflict quickly turned into a battle.  During the battle, Sitting Bull, who was now a middle-aged chief, walked out into the middle of the field where they were fighting and sat down in front of the U.S. soldiers. He invited several other tribesmen to join him.  Sitting Bull and his friends sat in the field and had a long, slow smoke from his tobacco pipe while watching people battling all around him. Legend says that after finishing his pipe, Sitting Bull carefully cleaned it and then walked off, without showing any fear. He was very brave!

During the 1860s, Sitting Bull continued to fight against settlers encroaching on Sioux land.  He and his tribesmen attacked white military outposts and stole livestock, or farm animals, or attacked the soldiers living there. Sitting Bull’s group of men was brave, but he knew that it wouldn’t be enough to keep back the U.S army. So he went and spoke to leaders of other tribes nearby and together, they worked as one group, the Lakota Sioux. They decided to just have one leader and in 1869, Sitting Bull became their new leader.  The group continued to grow and by the mid 1870s, the group also included warriors from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. 

Even though Sitting Bull is mostly remembered as a warrier, he was also a type of holy man.  He was believed to have the gift of prophecy, or the ability to see the future. Sitting Bull once had a vision or dream that the Sioux people were soon going to have a great victory in battle.  Shortly after that, the prophecy came true. 

In 1876, a Lieutenant Colonel by the name of George A. Custer’s and his soldiers rode out against the Sioux to battle. They were known as the Seventh Cavalry. They attacked Sitting Bull and his warriors, but they were inspired by Sitting Bull’s vision and even though they were outnumbered by Custer’s army, the Sioux people won the battle against over 200 soldiers. This became known as the Battle of Little Bighorn. 

Sitting Bull’s nephew, White Bull, and another warrior named Crazy Horse fought bravely at the Battle of Little Bighorn and became famous for their victory against Custer and the Seventh Cavalry.

But of course, the U.S. Army was not happy about losing the battle. Instead of backing down, they sent an army of twice as many soldiers to fight Sitting Bull. They wanted to push the Native (or First Nations) people off of the land and force them onto reservations. Reservations were an area of land set aside for them to live on instead of the land the settlers wanted. 

Sitting Bull refused to leave his own land and move to the reservations.  Instead, in May 1877, he led a group of his people to Canada where he spent four years hiding out.  Sadly though, the buffalo in the area disappeared. Because buffalo are what his people needed to survive they almost starved.  Sitting Bull and his people left their camp in Canada and moved back to the United States.  A few years later their camp was attacked and Sitting Bull and his followers surrendered to the U.S. army in North Dakota. 

By this time, Sitting Bull was now an older man.  He spent two years in prison and later was sent to live on a reservation at Standing Rock. He lived on that reservation for the rest of his life. 

Sitting Bull was famous when he got out of prison.  Many people heard stories about his fighting skills and admired him for his bravery.  When they met him they were willing to pay $2 just for his autograph.  He got permission to leave the reservation to go on tour as his own exhibition, or entertainment show.

When Sitting Bull was at a stopover in Minnesota, he saw a show starring Annie Oakley, the famous sharp shooter. Sitting Bull was very impressed with her gun shooting skills. He introduced himself and he and Annie Oakley became friends.  He gave her the nickname “Little Sure Shot” and called her his daughter.  Rumour has it that Sitting Bull gave Annie Oakley the pair of moccasins he had worn during the Battle of the Little Bighorn as a gift.

In June 1885, the showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody hired Sitting Bull to perform in his famous “Wild West” show. Sitting Bull was paid $50 a week to wear his full chief’s war attire and ride a horse during the show’s opening scene. Sitting Bull considered the job an easy way to earn money and help audiences learn about his people and how difficult their lives had become.  But some audience members didn’t like Sitting Bull because they knew he had killed white soldiers during battle. Sometimes, audiences cruelly boo-ed Sitting Bull and threw things at him. 

Sitting Bull soon got tired of traveling and some of the mean crowds.  And he missed his family.  So he left the tour for good after its final show in October.

Beginning in 1889, many Native American (or First Nations) people started talking about a religion called the “Ghost Dance”.  These people believed that a spirit was going to come to earth and remove white people from the area where they lived, allowing the Indians to return to their old ways. U.S. Authorities started to worry that Sitting Bull was going to use the Ghost Dance movement to lead a group of Indian people to war against the white people.  They always knew that Sitting Bull resisted, or refused to follow, white traditions.  So they believed he was likely to get involved and lead this movement against white people.  

On December 15, 1890, police were sent to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him in for questioning.  Sitting Bull, who was 59 at the time, refused to go with them.  So the policemen dragged him from his cabin.  The noise and commotion caused a large group of Sitting Bull’s followers to come to see what was going on.  One of them fired a shot at the policemen, setting off a brief gun battle. In the confusion that followed, more than a dozen people were killed including Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull had many hard experiences in his life and there is a lot that we can learn from him.  He showed great bravery from a young age while hunting and in battle. He was also able to stay very calm under stress and pressure. Have you ever practiced trying to stay calm when you feel afraid or angry?  What works well for you?  I know it helps me to take deep breaths and try and clear my thoughts. Sometimes if I go outside or take a walk that helps, too. Reacting to stress that way is much better than yelling or calling names or other things we later regret. It’s completely normal to feel upset. I do all the time. The question is how we will deal with those feelings. Sitting Bull showed us that even in intense situations, we can be calm. 

Sitting Bull also fought for what he believed in and stayed close to his family and his tribe. Even when they were threatened and told to leave their lands, he refused. He put himself in great danger to try and save his people. Sticking up for yourself and your family is a very noble thing to do. Think of what you can do to take care of your family and the community in which you live. Like Sitting Bull, we can all be leaders in our communities and families if we stick up for what we believe and for our loved ones.