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The Catholic Origins of Thanksgiving

Myths about the pilgrims and religious freedom have obscured some surprising truths about this great American holiday.

Did you know that Thanksgiving is a Catholic holiday? True, it’s not on the Church calendar. And it is celebrated only in America, whereas Church holidays are universal.

Our national holiday is certainly an event that has taken on a life of its own, with an established tradition involving turkey and mashed potatoes, football, shopping, and a four-day weekend—which is fascinating since none of those things have anything to do with the original event that gave rise to annual celebration on the fourth Thursday in November. But any time a nation does anything in unison that involves families getting together and counting their blessings, it is a good thing. “Thanks,” says G.K. Chesterton, “is the highest form of thought.” And he mentions the fact that the worst moment for an atheist is when he is thankful and suddenly realizes he has no one to thank.

But what is the origin of this holiday?

What most people believe is a variation on what I was taught in public school in the 1960s. The Pilgrims came to Plymouth on a ship called the Mayflower. They were the first English settlers in America. They came for religious freedom. And they had a big feast with Indians, and that was the first Thanksgiving. That about sums it up. And that is what Chesterton calls “The Myth of the Mayflower.”

First of all, they were not known as “pilgrims” till about 200 years afterwards. They were Puritans, a radical Anglican “low church” sect that loathed the “high church” Anglicans that happened to include the King of England. In fact, about 30 years after the Puritans arrived in America, some of their fellow Puritans back in England arranged for King Charles I to have his head chopped off.

Secondly, there were at least nine other British settlements before the Plymouth colony. In fact, one of them was at Plymouth. All but one of them failed, including the first settlement at Plymouth. The Puritans who came to Plymouth in 1620 almost didn’t survive. Half the settlers died the first winter. They were saved by a Native American named Squanto, who taught them how to hunt and fish and grow corn.

But here’s what is really interesting:  Squanto was a Roman Catholic.

In 1614, he had been captured by an English party led by Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) and taken on a ship to Spain where he was to be sold as a slave. He was rescued by some Dominican friars who instructed him in the Catholic faith. He told them he wanted to return to his people in America. They helped him get to England, where he met John Slaney, who taught him English and arranged for him to get to Newfoundland. Squanto served as an interpreter between the English and the Indians and crossed the Atlantic six times.  He was never able to return to his own tribe, because they had been wiped out in a plague.

After he came to the aid of the Plymouth settlers, helping them grow their own food, he arranged for a joint harvest feast with the local Wampanoag tribe. It was this event that is the basis of our Thanksgiving holiday. So Thanksgiving was started by a Native American Catholic. Ironically, the Wampanoag tribe later took Squanto hostage because they distrusted him, and he was rescued by the English. It is possible that the Indians poisoned him, which led to his death shortly afterwards in 1622.

And then there is this other thing we never learned in school: In 1621, the year after the Puritans arrived at Plymouth, another group of English settlers arrived in Ferry, Newfoundland. The land had been granted to George Calvert, the First Baron of Baltimore. Calvert’s son, Cecilius, the Second Baron of Baltimore, was granted another chunk of the New World, which he settled in 1632. He called it Maryland. Why did England give this land to George Calvert and his son? As compensation for the fact the George Calvert had been stripped of his title of Secretary State. And why had he been stripped of his title? Because he declared that he was a Roman Catholic. Maryland (named for some woman whose name was Mary) was the first English Catholic settlement in the New World, and one of its founding principles was…freedom of religion.

The Puritans up the coast get all the credit for establishing freedom of religion, but they did not do it. They were actually quite opposed to the idea. They were anything but tolerant. In fact, it was their intolerance that caused them to come to the new world, not persecution. England was not Puritan enough for them. They did not think the Stuarts had gone far enough to do away with the elements of Catholicism that still remained in the Church of England. Puritan intolerance led the eventual execution of King Charles I (whose wife and children were Catholic). Puritan intolerance was further demonstrated by a course of events in another Puritan settlement established just six years after the one in Plymouth, just down the road, had there been a road. It was called Salem. It was there that anyone who departed from a strict Puritan practice was in danger of being burned as a witch. Chesterton points out that the Puritans lost their belief in priests but kept their belief in witches.

So the Catholics deserve the credit not only for the first Thanksgiving, but for the first real religious freedom in America. Not the Puritans whom we call Pilgrims.

It is perhaps why G.K. Chesterton says that England should also celebrate Thanksgiving—in thanks that the Pilgrims left England!

(This essay was originally posted on November 25, 2015.)

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About Dale Ahlquist 49 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.


  1. I don’t why the schools pass this by? Not to mention the educated historians. I was taught that two great things happened a couple of hundred years apart… Columbus discovered America then the Puritans fled to the shores to escape the religious persecution of the King. You note in this piece the following…

    “So the Catholics deserve the credit not only for the first Thanksgiving, but for the first real religious freedom in America. Not the Puritans whom we call Pilgrims.

    As a Catholic, how can we say that we are champions of religious freedom when we seek converts from other faiths via evangelism? Paradox?

    • MorganB, religious freedom is the ability to practice whatever religion you wish. It doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t evangelize! We want people to know of our Truth and that they have the *option* to join us. We tell them the good news and let the Holy Spirit do the hard work. We (hopefully) live our faith and are role models. We don’t force someone to convert to our Church. That is religious freedom. There is no paradox.

    • “As a Catholic, how can we say that we are champions of religious freedom when we seek converts from other faiths via evangelism? Paradox?”

      No, it isn’t a paradox. We seek converts from other faiths via evangelism. We do not have the government force them to convert against their wills. They are free to convert if they wish to do so, or not to convert.

    • The United States has an anti-Catholic history and sentiments even in my lifetime. I can imagine the pilgrim story developed to usurp the holiday’s Catholic identity. Catholic schools should definitely teach the authentic origin of Thanksgiving.

    • How can we Catholics claim to be champions of religious liberty in America? Simple We don’t coerce people or threaten them to convert or die. (Please, no references to the Spanish Inquisition. I’m talking about this country and the present age. )

      • Indigenous peoples in Canada weren’t given the option when the Catholic Church stole their children and placed them in residential schools. Not history – in this lifetime. Disgusting.

    • How the Christianity was spread during the first 9 centuries? The Apostles and our missionaries traveled all over the world to bring to gentiles the Good News. They did not us coercion but they presented the Story of Jesus as the Messiah. In our time, the liberals and agnostics used the new ‘theology’ of excluding the missionary and evangelization characteristic of the Catholic Church with the hidden agenda of promoting indifferentism. This is the new from of paganism. In todays world what you hear is “nobody is going to tell me what to do’, islamophobia, but you don’t hear about Christianophbia.

  2. Why do the schools pass this by? I try not to think of the richness of our Catholic Faith that is not taught today. We present our children with Masters of the Universe or Spider-Man or whatever is the latest superhero yet we deny them knowledge of true heroes like Father DeSmet.
    As regards evangelization, Vatican II drove a stake through the heart of traditional evangelization when it redefined ecumenism from converting non-Catholics to the Faith for the salvation of their soul to now dialogue, meaningless, pointless, unending dialogue with other faiths. You will not find any Father DeSmet types in the current Catholic Church. He was far too courageous and convicted in his faith for today’s weak piping church “leaders” whose sole desire I am convinced is to not rock the boat but rather to just go along to get along.

  3. “So Thanksgiving was started by a Native American Catholic.”

    Or, Thanksgiving was started by a group that *included* a Roman Catholic paleo-American?

    The mild ‘gotcha’ tone here reminds me of the same one often leveled at the story of Columbus. He may not have been ‘the first’ discoverer, but his contribution was decisive. Likewise that of the Puritans. America began as an essentially Protestant country, and that still seems on many ways like a blessing and a good if also inexplicable thing. God used gentile to bless the Jews, and he uses Protestants to bless the Church.

    • The cleaving of Christendom by Protestantism is a blessing by God?

      If it helped the Church at the time of the Reformation in reforming its corrupt practices, possibly.

      But the Deposit of Faith – the doctrine and its resulting Sacraments that maintain and preserves the soul – that did not change and remains eternal; Protestantism offers nothing but the wind.

  4. morganB

    “As a Catholic, how can we say that we are champions of religious freedom when we seek converts from other faiths via evangelism? Paradox?”

    Nope. Religious freedom doesn’t prohibit religious choices. Just the opposite.

    • As Catholics we should not be champions of “religious freedom” but champions for truth who is Christ Jesus and his bride the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church which He founded. It is the One True Faith without which there is NO salvation. He directed his apostles to go out and baptize all nations in the name of The Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost.

  5. The first Thanksgiving was September 8, 1565, the first Catholic Mass (Eucharist = thanksgiving as well as the Cross) celebrated at the Spanish site of St. Augustine, Florida–which was first sighted eleven days after the Feast of St. Augustine.

  6. Religious liberty was condemned by Pope Gregory XVI (1830-1846) in the encyclical Mirari vos (August 15, 1832), then by Pius IX (1846-1878) in the encyclical Quanta cura (December 8, 1864). This error can be spelled out in two points.

    The saints have never hesitated to break idols, destroy their temples, or legislate against pagan or heretical practices. The Church—without ever forcing anyone to believe or be baptized—has always recognized its right and duty to protect the faith of her children and to impede, whenever possible, the public exercise and propagation of false cults.

  7. It is true the Squanto was rescued and taught by Catholic monks in Spain. There is no written evidence that he became a Roman Catholic. His conversion may have happened close to his death. According to the writings of William Bradford:
    When Squanto lay dying of a fever, Bradford wrote that their Indian friend “desir[ed] the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.” Squanto bequeathed his possessions to his English friends “as remembrances of his love.”

    It is scandalous to suggest the Catholic Church pursued religious freedom in the colonial era! The Catholic inquisition tortured and killed Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims by the 10,000s. This includes burning Lutherans at the stake in the Americas in the 1570’s.

    In comparison, around 20 people were killed in Salem for allegedly being witches. Local ministers pushed for halt to the practice. Salem admitted their mistakes, made reparations to the families of the dead and called upon the people to fast and pray to plead for God’s mercy.

    • Regarding religious freedom and persecution of Catholics in the American colonies, here for the mix are some documented tidbits. . .

      MARYLAND: George Calvert, converted and then was given a peerage, and later was given a charter from Charles I after declining to settle at the Jamestown location where he refused to sign the Protestant Oath of Supremacy. In 1633 George’s son, Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, organized Maryland for both Catholics and Protestants. Religious tolerance was formally but only temporarily established under the Act of Toleration of 1649. . .

      “Maryland was founded on the broad principles of religious freedom, and Puritans expelled from Virginia found shelter there. During the period of the Commonwealth, however, the very men who had sought an asylum in Maryland overthrew the authority of Lord Baltimore and passed severe penal laws against the Catholics, sending all the priests as prisoners to England. In a few years they returned and resumed their labors under great disadvantages. Though a law of toleration was passed in 1649, it was of brief duration” [until 1654]. (John Gilmary Shea, Our Faith and Its Defenders, 1896).

      NEW YORK: Entrenched anti-Catholic bias is illustrated, in one of many examples, by riots that broke out in New York City in 1741, this in response to an alleged popish plot to burn the city (four whites were hanged and eleven blacks burned at the stake). Around this time one John Ury was hung for the crime of knowing Latin. If he knew Latin, the jury reasoned, he must be a Catholic priest, which was illegal in New York at the time.

      THE COLONIES/STATES: The U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from establishing a religion, but says nothing about the states. Established and tax-supported churches in most of the colonies were disestablished only in the years following the Declaration of Independence and the later U.S. Constitution of 1789: Congregational states in 1818 and 1819, the last being Massachusetts in 1833; Anglican colonies in 1776, 1778 and 1786. Exceptions were Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania—all of which echoed the earliest (Catholic) Maryland’s religious toleration (Thomas Bailey, The American Pageant, 1965).

    • JCatholic. When you say ‘Inquisition ‘ you, naturally, do not provide any specifics (which particular Inquisition, for example) and we are all expected to shudder at the mention and meekly accept your assertion of the religious intolerance by which the Catholic Church cruelly burned at the stake tens of thousands of free thinkers. So, the first question is, to which Inquisition do you refer? The ‘Inquisition ‘ is a process of debate in which doctrines are tested, with an advocate and a ‘devil’s advocate’ debating the contra view. The Albigensian crusade was a political rebellion, primarily against the ruling French powers by local rulers, in which a Manichaean cult (in reality, extremely sinister) became part of a movement with an end to destroy society. I would assume that, if you are referring to a specific action by the Church (as opposed to some vague accusation of Catholics acting badly during the two thousand year history of the Church), you refer to the Spanish Inquisition. This was not a Church inquisition, but was instituted by Ferdinand and Isabella (king and Queen – ie., secular rulers), for the purpose of claiming back Spain from Muslim domination. You can read ‘The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise’ by Dario Fernandez-Morera to discover the historical position of Spain which gave rise to the need to fight back by the Spanish in order to regain their sovereignty. However, the fundamental assumptions which you use to make your assertions, that is , tens of thousands of deaths, torture etc., are absolutely untrue and are the result of propaganda put out by Protestant England (the avowed enemy of Catholic Spain), and a country which inflicted more torture under Henry VII’s Star Chamber and the Tower and Elizabeth I ‘s torture chambers than anything conceived by the Spanish. In fact, torture was rarely used in the Spanish Inquisition (unlike England, as to which see Margaret Clitheroe, or look up ‘the Scavenger’s daughter’). In Spain, torture was limited to fifteen minutes and was used in a tiny percentage. The purpose of the Inquisition was to determine who were traitors to the regime, not to impose religion. Hence, those Jews (conversos), who were seen as against the regime and supporting the Muslim domination were expelled, as were any people who formed what was, to the regime, a fifth column. Your allegations of tens of thousands of deaths is actually the reverse of the real situation. During the period of the Reformation in the sixteenth century the Spanish Inquisition executed 182 heretics or less than two per year. In contrast, the Protestant countries in England, Netherlands, Ireland and throughout Northern Europe executed tens of thousands (if you take the full toll in Ireland – millions). As to witches, the prosecutions for witchcraft occurred in Protestant areas, Germany, Switzerland and, as stated, the Puritan areas of the US. The estimate is twenty thousand deaths, but this is really supposition. Witchcraft was seen as a superstition by the Catholic Church and there were no trials for witchcraft in Spain, home of the dreaded Inquisition. Indeed, at the same time of the Salem witch trial, a prosecution was brought in Mexico of a woman charged with witchcraft at the instigation of two priests. The charge was dismissed and the priests were chastised for being gullible and ‘acting unjustly.’ So, yes, there were executions in (some), Inquisitions – if you include civil internal strife and rebellion as defined by that term. However, in the context of a long history of human conflict, the executions carried out under the Spanish Inquisition were notable for restraint, rather than as a symbol of the unadulterated and hypocritical imposition of religious intolerance.

    • The various Inquisitions need to be distinguished from each other.

      To give you one example of how difficult research in this area can be:

      From :

      According to Henry Kamen’s “The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision” it is very difficult to determine, because if people fled – which they usually did – the Inquisition would burn them in effigy, and make no distinction in their records between whether someone was burned in effigy or in reality. According to Kamen, at the height of the Inquistiion, they executed a handful of people per year, and the State of Texas executes more people in a year than the Inquisition did in ten.

  8. If I remember correctly, Spanish explorers may have made it up to Maryland very early on & named the Chesapeake Bay for Our Lady.
    They definitely had a mission on St. Catherine’s island in Georgia in the 1500’s. I think the Spanish ran out the French Huguenots in that coastal area.

  9. For some time now I’ve been thinking about the religion established by Muhammad.
    It is possible that someday people will look back on our current period when the religion of Islam was causing turbulence and warfare and reflect how Catholicism went through a period of similar conflict and strife.

    • With this Thanksgiving week there is a new book out by Michael Medved, God’s Hand on America, Divine providence in the Modern Era. Heard him discuss it on a radio program, where he highlighted events where the Divine has protected this country. Just to add another thought today would be a good day to Thank God for this country, given all it’s shortcomings, and pray that God protects America and bring it back to a Christian culture.

  10. JCatholic,
    I’d agree that the Catholic Church probably wasn’t promoting freedom of choice in religion during the colonial period but they weren’t unique in that.
    Massachusetts wasn’t the only British colony to execute witches. Connecticut had its own witch trials. I think the last person executed for witchcraft in Britain was a woman in Scotland.
    It wasn’t a hugely tolerant period.

  11. “named after some woman whose name was Mary”. Maryland was named after Queen Mary, the Catholic wife of King Charles I. She was the mother of King Charles II.

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