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Proclamations of the Thanksgiving holiday by, e.g., Presidents Washington and Lincoln made no mention of the Plymouth colony. When and how did the Plymouth harvest festival of 1621 become a canonical (and ahistorical) justification for the existence of the Thanksgiving holiday?

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It was a gradual process spanning many decades. A connection existed in at least some New Englander's minds as early at the 1840s, but you are correct that the idea was not well-entrenched nationally until long after the Civil War if not well into the 20th century when, as mentioned in the comments, "the Pilgrims" were referenced in a 1939 Thanksgiving proclamation by President Roosevelt. By then, the idea of the holiday must have been considerably less controversial for Southern whites as it once had been, and the slow rise of modern mass media also payed a role in spreading what was previously a regionally-specific form of the celebration.

Philip Deloria gave the following high-level summary of the overall process in a New Yorker article from 2019:

In 1841, the Reverend Alexander Young explicitly linked three things: the 1621 “rejoicing,” the tradition of autumnal harvest festivals, and the name Thanksgiving. He did so in a four-line throwaway gesture and a one-line footnote. Of such half thoughts is history made.

A couple of decades later, Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, proposed a day of unity and remembrance to counter the trauma of the Civil War, and in 1863 Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be that national holiday, following Young’s lead in calling it Thanksgiving. After the Civil War, Thanksgiving developed rituals, foodways, and themes of family—and national—reunion. Only later would it consolidate its narrative around a harmonious Pilgrim-Wampanoag feast, as Lisa Blee and Jean O’Brien point out in “Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit” (North Carolina), which tells the story of how the holiday myth spread. Fretting over late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century immigration, American mythmakers discovered that the Pilgrims, and New England as a whole, were perfectly cast as national founders: white, Protestant, democratic, and blessed with an American character centered on family, work, individualism, freedom, and faith.

The new story aligned neatly with the defeat of American Indian resistance in the West and the rising tide of celebratory regret that the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo once called “imperialist nostalgia.” Glorifying the endurance of white Pilgrim founders diverted attention from the brutality of Jim Crow and racial violence, and downplayed the foundational role of African slavery. The fable also allowed its audience to avert its eyes from the marginalization of Asian and Latinx labor populations, the racialization of Southern European and Eastern European immigrants, and the rise of eugenics. At Thanksgiving, white New England cheerfully shoved the problematic South and West off to the side, and claimed America for itself.

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  • It appears that the spurious description of the 1621 festival as "the first Thanksgiving" originated with Young in that 1841 footnote, and people latched onto it because it was a good story. > The modern Thanksgiving tradition is rooted in a 165-year-old historical misunderstanding that goes far beyond the question of whether turkey was served. There was no connection made between Pilgrims and Thanksgiving until 1841, when Alexander Young published a book in Boston containing a letter written by Edward Winslow, one of the Plymouth Colony leaders, on Dec. 11, 1621.
    – Colin
    Dec 18, 2023 at 18:54
  • > The letter includes one paragraph in which Winslow described a three-day harvest celebration attended by the 50 colonists and some 90 Indians. > On his own, Young decided to add an asterisk, a fateful footnote describing the event as "the first Thanksgiving" ... In essence, Young wrongly conflated the English tradition of a secular harvest festival with the very specific Puritan tradition of observing holy days of Thanksgiving, which occurred primarily in church and only when occasions warranted.
    – Colin
    Dec 18, 2023 at 18:55
  • > But it all started with Young's faulty footnote. "So, basically, that asterisk sets the myth in motion," said Jennifer Monac, public-relations manager for Plimouth Plantation. "That's all it was, a paragraph in a book, and it's turned into America's most beloved holiday." chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2006-11-19-0611190267-story.html
    – Colin
    Dec 18, 2023 at 18:55
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    Yeah, those are helpful quotes although I wouldn't personally have put quite that much emphasis on Young. His footnote could have easily been lost and forgotten if it weren't for all the other dynamics.
    – Brian Z
    Dec 18, 2023 at 19:06

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