“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest, their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men. With whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed upon our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
~A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Edward Winslow, 1621~
Centuries before the settlers found the New World, Europeans celebrated times of thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving in the North America began many generations ago, but there is a bit of disagreement between scholars as to the actual date and place of the first Thanksgiving.
Most people believe the Puritans in Plymouth, Mass. hosted the first Thanksgiving feast in 1621. However, some scholars believe it occurred 56 years earlier and 1,200 miles to the south.
On September 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés held a Catholic Mass in what is present day St. Augustine, FL, to give thanks for the safe arrival of the Spanish party in la Florida, and considered by scholars of early American history at the University of Florida as the very first Thanksgiving celebration held in North America.
In 1578, the Newfoundland province of Canada held its first Thanksgiving in celebration of the journey and safe return of explorer Martin Frobisher, who searched for the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean.
French settlers arrived in North America in the early 17th Century and created an area called New France. After their arrival, they began celebrating their bountiful harvests, and they shared their bounty with the local Native American people. It was at this time that Samuel de Champlain, and others set up a French Colonial Order called the Order of Good Cheer, which remains active in Nova Scotia, Canada to this day. They order was responsible for many banquets of thanksgiving and friendship throughout the year.
In 1619, European settlers led by Captain John Woodlief in Berkley Plantation, VA, held a thanksgiving ceremony on the banks of the Charles River to thank God for their safe arrival after a long, and perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Some historians believe this is the first recorded Thanksgiving ceremony, which occurred three years before the Puritan pilgrims landed at Plymouth.
According to an article on the U.S. Department of Defense website, although the pilgrims and Indians shared this first Thanksgiving together, and signed a treaty, which led to harmony for 50 years. Unfortunately, the arriving settlers brought with them the European diseases that killed off the entire Wampanoag tribe by 1671.”
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789 as an official holiday of “sincere and humble thanks.”
“It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”
~President George Washington, 1789~
This continued for the next three Presidents, who each proclaimed at least two days of Thanksgiving during their terms in office, either of their own accord or by a resolution of Congress. The only exception to this was Thomas Jefferson, who believed that to proclaim a day of thanksgiving and prayer, violated the separation of church and state. James Madison was the last President to proclaim a day of Thanksgiving, which was held April 13, 1815, until President Lincoln.
Although many may not know who she is, Americans today can thank Sarah Josepha Hale for helping to establish the national thanksgiving holiday during President Lincoln’s time. Thanks in large part to her 36-year campaign of writing articles for such popular magazines as “Ladies Magazine,” and “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” for which she was the editor. She wrote letters to lawmakers and the President, until she finally secured a national thanksgiving holiday on October 3, 1863.
On that date, President Lincoln issued a Presidential Proclamation making the traditional Thanksgiving celebration a nationwide holiday, commemorated each year on the fourth Thursday of November. In the midst of a bloody Civil War, President Lincoln enumerated the blessings of the American people, and called upon his countrymen to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of “Thanksgiving.”
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy still recovering from the Great Depression. This move, reversed in 1941, set off a national debate that led to Congress passing, and President Roosevelt approving a joint house resolution establishing, by law, the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.
No matter the year, or even century, Thanksgiving remains a day to gather with friends and family to give thanks for the blessings of the previous year, and in today’s society, consume copious amounts of food. As the holiday’s history illustrates, there are many cultures and ethnicities to thank for this enduring holiday, including the Native Americans, Spanish and European settlers.