5 Facts You Might Not Know About the History of Thanksgiving

1. The first Thanksgiving was in Virginia, not Massachusetts

Popular images of the "first Thanksgiving" tend to focus on the three-day celebration that the Pilgrims in Plymouth shared with Wampanoag Indians in 1621. While such a celebration did take place, it was not the first such Thanksgiving to be celebrated by English colonists in North America.

According to the Washingtonian, the first Thanksgiving in America actually took place farther south, in what was then the colony of Virginia, and was actually celebrated before those Pilgrims held their long-remembered feast.

The Virginia Thanksgiving occurred in 1619, when 35 settlers from England arrived on the banks of the James River, about 24 miles from the site of the state's present-day capital of Richmond. They established a settlement there called Berkeley Plantation.

As the Washingtonian reported, the Berkeley Company declared that the day of their safe arrival to the settlement site must 'be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.' And it was celebrated as such for over two decades—until the English settlement at Berkeley Plantation was destroyed by the Powhatan, and the celebration forgotten until evidence of it was rediscovered in 1911.

Plymouth Hosts Thanksgiving Parade
Townspeople dressed as pilgrims ride on a float during the annual Thanksgiving Parade November 20, 2004 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Michael Springer/Getty

2. Thanksgiving as we know it was largely the idea of the same woman who wrote 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'

Sarah Josepha Hale, a patriotic appreciator of the Pilgrims and a prolific author who died as the writer of novels and poems—including the nursery rhyme, 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'— is to thank for the national holiday of Thanksgiving.

A highly patriotic woman, Hale at some point took a break from her writing to read about the Pilgrims' 1621 feast, and became inspired. According to the Washington Post, she was moved to begin a campaign to institute Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Every year from 1846 onward, the Philadelphia woman wrote an editorial advocating for getting Americans across the country to celebrate in the magazine she edited called, Godey's Lady's Book.

She did not even let up when several states seceded from the union and the Civil War broke out in 1861. Two years later, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday.

3. One year, the president pardoned a raccoon instead of a turkey

In 1926, Calvin Coolidge—the nation's 30th president—received a raccoon as a Thanksgiving dinner gift, according to a blog post from the Nature Conservatory.

This was actually not so odd of a gesture at the time. Forest mammals such as raccoon, squirrel or possum were considered regional delicacies in Coolidge's day. But, rather than roasting and carving the mammal as one traditionally does to a turkey, Coolidge opted to keep it as a pet.

The raccoon, whom Coolidge had decided to name Rebecca, joined a host of other unusual pets gifted to Coolidge during his presidential tenure. Among these included two lion cubs, a wallaby and a black bear.

In her years as a pet, Rebecca was permitted to roam the White House freely. She was often captured in press photographs cradled in the arms of First Lady Grace Coolidge, who once said that the raccoon "enjoyed nothing better than being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play." Rebecca would reportedly spend hours playing this way.

The Coolidges ultimately donated Rebecca to the nearby Rock Park Zoo, where she lived out her last days.

First Lady's Raccoon
US First Lady Grace Coolidge holds up her pet raccoon, Rebecca, for a crowd of children at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, Washington DC, April 18, 1927. Herbert French/Getty

4. 260 tons of Thanksgiving leftovers led to the invention of the TV dinner.

In 1953, the Swanson food company grossly overestimated the amount of Thanksgiving turkey consumers would buy, and were left with over two and a half tons of the frozen bird meat, according to the Smithsonian magazine.

One salesman for the company, Gerry Thomas, came up with a solution to get rid of the turkeys before they went bad—a solution that would turn a massive profit. He ordered 5,000 aluminum trays and assembled a simple meal of the turkey, peas and sweet potatoes. After hiring a passel of women to arrange the meals in the trays on an assembly line, the Swanson company sold the meals at 98 cents each. In today's money, that is about 9 and a half dollars.

The rest, as the kids say, was history.

5. No evidence suggests that the Native Americans were even invited to the feast held in Plymouth.

Many of us might have an image in our minds of the so-called first Thanksgiving as being a moment in time when English settlers offered to share the fruits of their labor with the Wampanoag, some of the indigenous inhabitants of the American continent, as a gesture to put aside their differences and share a meal in the spirit of friendship.

In reality, however, historians are unsure precisely how the Wampanoag wound up at the celebration. The Plymouth settlers themselves did not record that they intended to share their harvest with the natives. As reported by Fortune, some have said that they were probably there only because the Pilgrims had fired off some of their guns in celebration, and the Wampanoag arrived on the scene only to investigate what they thought might have been a battle.