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U.S. Census Bureau History: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Dinner

The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a census of agriculture every 5 years to collect data on the nation's crop and
livestock producers. The most recent enumeration in 2017 found that 23,173 turkey farms supplied the main course of many
Thanksgiving feasts. These farms produced more than 104 million turkeys in 2017.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

On November 28, 2019, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving. The way Americans celebrate the holiday has changed since colonists celebrated the first days of thanksgiving in Virginia and Massachusetts in the early 1600s. No longer strictly a holiday celebrating survival and the autumn harvest, Thanksgiving is now a time for families and friends to gather, enjoy a meal together, watch football, participate in charitable events, and begin the holiday shopping season.

Early colonists celebrated several days of thanksgiving in the early 1600s, with our modern holiday tracing its roots to a celebration between Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians Link to a non-federal Web site in 1621. The early settlers of the Plymouth Colony Link to a non-federal Web site gave thanks after surviving their first winter in North America, succeeding at their attempts at farming, and celebrating the colony's improved chances of surviving as a new winter season approached.

Colonists continued to celebrate religious days of thanksgiving throughout the colonial period, including a day of thanksgiving to celebrate the Continental Army's victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. After the American Revolution, President George Washington proclaimed that the new nation would celebrate its first thanksgiving on November 26, 1789. President James Madison proclaimed a day of thanksgiving on March 4, 1815, following the United States' victory in the War of 1812. Throughout the 1800s, states celebrated their own days of thanksgiving—often in November—independent of any proclamation by the federal government.

Following the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, and perhaps in response to Sarah Josepha Hale's lobbying (see "Sarah Josepha Hale" to the left), President Abraham Lincoln issued a thanksgiving proclamation on October 3, 1863. With the nation split in two by war, Lincoln urged Americans to give thanks and praise and "...commend to [our beneficent Father's] care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, presidents proclaimed days of Thanksgiving each year on the last Thursday of November. In 1939, with the nation in the grip of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday earlier in the month (proclamation 2373) to benefit retailers who hoped Americans would spend more money if given additional time to shop for the holidays. While 32 states recognized Roosevelt's earlier Thanksgiving date, 16 refused to acknowledge the president's proclamation. For 2 years, Americans had a choice of two Thanksgiving days until Congress passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday of November to be the nation's legal Thanksgiving Day on October 6, 1941.

Today, our Thanksgiving holiday celebrations reflect our nation's increasingly diverse population. Feasts may include turkey, ham, or roast beef; Italian aranchini, Mexican chile relleno, Indian chicken vindaloo, or Vietnamese bun cha; and a cornucopia of side dishes, vegetables, breads, and desserts. You can learn more about the history of Thanksgiving and how we celebrate the holiday using census data and records. For example:

  • One of the first feasts of thanksgiving celebrated by English colonists in North American took place in Plymouth, MA, between Pilgrims and American Indians from a nearby Wampanoag Indian village in November 1621. At the time, approximately 40,000 Link to a non-federal Web site people made up New England's Wampanoag Indians Link to a non-federal Web site. In 2010, the number of people reporting they were Wampanoag alone or in any combination with another race or tribe was 6,500. They were among more than 5.2 million people reporting their race as American Indian or Alaska Native alone or in combination in 2010.
  • The number of people reporting they are American Indian alone or in combination grew 26.7 percent between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses. Of the 5,220,579 people reporting as American Indian or Alaska Native in 2010, the majority—2,123,549—lived in western states. California led the nation with the largest American Indian and Alaska Native population (723,225), followed by Oklahoma (482,760), Arizona (353,386), and Texas (315,264). Massachusetts—home to the Wampanoag American Indian Tribe that participated in the first Thanksgiving in 1621—was home to 50,705 people reporting they were American Indian alone or in combination in 2010.
  • Following the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the United States was home to 2,042,220 farms from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or would normally be sold during the year. Among these farms are the 74,276 vegetable farms producing our Thanksgiving meals' traditional "fixings" including: 16,554 potato and 4,798 sweet potato farms; 8,471 carrot growers; 6,012 farms growing green peas; 20,784 farms growing sweet corn; 22,704 squash growers. Some of the fruits and nuts for our desserts are supplied by the nation's 19,008 pecan, 7,532 English walnut, and 26,408 apple orchards.
  • In addition to Plymouth, MA—site of the 1621 thanksgiving feast and home to the Plimoth Plantation Link to a non-federal Web site living history museum—there are a number of counties, cities, and towns named "Plymouth." These include: Plymouth County, MA and Plymouth County, IA; the cities of Plymouth, MN, Plymouth, IN, Plymouth, MI, and Plymouth, WI; and the towns of Plymouth, NH, and Plymouth, CT.
  • Do you prefer to have someone else prepare your Thanksgiving dinner or dessert? Many families will celebrate Thanksgiving at one of the nation's 517,908 restaurants and other eating places (NAICS 7225) that participated in the 2012 Economic Census. Other families may serve desserts prepared by one of the nation's 6,339 retail (NAICS 311811) or 2,342 commercial (NAICS 311812) bakeries; 210 frozen cakes, pie, and other pastry manufacturers (NAICS 311813); or 301 cookie and cracker manufacturing establishments (NAICS 311821).
  • Thanksgiving roadtrips have improved greatly since motorists spent hours driving their early automobiles along the rough and muddy roads that linked cities and towns in the first decades of the 20th century. In 2018, the American Automobile Association estimated that more than 54 million Link to a non-federal Web site Americans traveled to visit family and friends for Thanksgiving. The majority of these travelers planned trips in one or more of the nation's 111 million registered automobiles or 983,232 buses that plied routes along more than 4.1 million miles of public roadways.
  • After dinner and dessert, many households gather around the television to watch Thanksgiving Day football games. The census first asked households if they owned a television set during the 1950 Census. In that year, just 9 percent of households owned a television. That number grew to 65 percent in 1960, and 87 percent in 1970. Since 1998, nearly 99 percent of all households in the United States owned at least one television.
  • Once Thanksgiving dinner is finished, many Americans visit favorite retail stores to begin holiday shopping. In 2018, the National Retail Federation reported that more than 165 million Link to a non-federal Web site Americans shopped either in stores or online between Thanksgiving Day (November 22) and "Cyber Monday" (November 26). During the November and December holiday shopping period, retail sales totaled $707.5 billion Link to a non-federal Web site.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau made its first inquiries about households' Internet access in the 1997 Current Population Survey. At that time, 18 percent of American households had Internet access. In 2017, data from the American Community Survey estimated that 82.1 percent of households in the United States had a computer and access to the Internet. One year later, the National Retail Federation reported that American's used those Internet connections to spend $146.8 billion Link to a non-federal Web site online and via other nonstore sales during the November–December 2018 holiday shopping season.
  • According to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants Link to a non-federal Web site, millions of Americans are descendants of the passengers and crew of the Mayflower. Among these descendants are a number of famous and infamous Americans including: Presidents Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and George H. W. Bush; actors Marilyn Monroe and Orson Welles; celebrity chef Julia Child; Civil War General George B. McClellan; and scientist Benjamin Spock.

Painting depicting the first Thanksgiving by J.L.G. Ferris

In the fall of 1621, 53 Pilgrims celebrated their first feast of thanksgiving at the Plymouth Colony with American Indian Chief Massasoit and
90 members of his nearby Wampanoag Indian Link to a non-federal Web site village.

In 2010, the number of people reporting they were Wampanoag alone or in any combination with another race or tribe was 6,500.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.




Citing Our Internet Information


Individual census records from 1790 to 1940 are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, not the U.S. Census Bureau.



Publications related to the census data collected from 1790 to 2010 are available at https://www.census.gov/prod/www/decennial.html.

Visit the National Archives Web site to access 1940 Census records—http://1940census.archives.gov.

Decennial census records are confidential for 72 years to protect respondents' privacy.

Records from the 1950 to 2010 censuses can only be obtained by the person named in the record or their heir after submitting form BC-600 or BC-600sp (Spanish).

Online subscription services are available to access the 1790–1940 census records. Many public libraries provide access to these services free of charge to their patrons.

Contact your local library to inquire if it has subscribed to one of these services.



Coming Soon!

Rudolph image used with permission of the Rauner Special Collection Library, Dartmouth College

Eighty years ago, Robert L. May wrote and illustrated the children's book Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as part of a department store promotion.

Return next month to learn more about May and the story that has become a holiday "classic" using census data and records.

This Month in Census History


2nd Congressional District, Pennsylvania

Apportioning each states' representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and redrawing their congressional districts are two of the most important uses of the population data collected by the decennial census.

On November 15, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill into law establishing that the Huntington-Hill Method would be used to apportion each state's congressional representatives following the 1940 Census. The Huntington-Hill Method has been used to apportion the House of Representatives ever since.

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: October 30, 2019