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Little-Known Facts about Thanksgiving

Little-Known Facts about Thanksgiving

If you’re bringing Thanksgiving activities into your classroom, facts are a great way of powering them. Aside from videos about the holiday (here’s a great collection of videos from WatchKnowLearn), these facts can give activities some perspective.

  • The first Thanksgiving celebration in America actually occurred in 1541 in the Texas panhandle by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his expedition.
  • Many countries have had harvest celebrations similar to Thanksgiving for hundreds of years, including Russia and China, as well as many African tribes.
  • Native Hawaiians have had a Thanksgiving celebration for hundreds of years before the Plymouth Thanksgiving. Called “Makahiki”, it lasts for four months and people were forbidden to work during that time.
  • There was a little boy born during the Pilgrims’ crossing of the Atlantic on the Mayflower. He was named Oceanus.
  • The Pilgrims were not the first Europeans to see Plymouth. The future King Charles named the spot when Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) found it in 1614.
  • Both adults and children drank beer at the first Thanksgiving feast in the Plymouth colony. It was safer than water due to the distillation process.
  • 35 million Americans are direct descendants of the Pilgrims, including Presidents John Adams and Franklin Roosevelt, and actors Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood.
  • Abraham Lincoln established the official federal Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. Until then, previous presidents proclaimed various times of the year as “Thanksgiving”. Lincoln was given the idea by Sarah Josepha Hale, the writer of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.
  • Much of the food at the Plymouth Thanksgiving was not what we would consider traditional. Lots of shellfish, lobster, venison, and wild boar were served along with the occasional turkey.
  • The southern states refused to observe the federal Thanksgiving holiday until well after Lincoln established it, fearing it was a federal takeover of their rights.
  • Around 280 million turkeys are sold each year for Thanksgiving, nearly one for each person in the country.
  • 23 million people watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last year, comparable to a football game on national TV or a presidential debate.
  • The Detroit Lions have been hosting a football game on Thanksgiving since 1934. The Dallas Cowboys stole the idea in 1966.
  • The US Virgin Islands have two Thanksgivings: the national holiday and “Hurricane Thanksgiving Day” on October 19th to give thanks for the islands being spared from hurricanes that year (if, indeed, one has not hit them).
  • Pork, chicken, and cheese all contain more tryptophan—the amino acid which causes post-meal drowsiness—than turkey.

Looking for more Thanksgiving facts to share with your students? Check out’s Thanksgiving article and video resources!  

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Scott Sterling

Scott Sterling is a former English teacher who worked in Title I middle and high schools in St. Petersburg, Florida who is now a freelance writer who focuses on education. He is also a stay-at-home dad to his 4-year-old daughter Lily, who will soon be starting her own educational journey.