The History of Thanksgiving in the United States
An annual thanksgiving holiday tradition in North American colonies is documented for the first time in 1619, in what is now called the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thirty-eight English settlers aboard the ship Margaret arrived by way of the James River at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia on December 4, 1619. The landing was immediately followed by a religious celebration, specifically dictated by the group’s charter from the London Company. The charter declared, “that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Since the mid 20th century, the original celebration has been commemorated there annually at present-day Berkeley Plantation, ancestral home of the Harrison family of Virginia.
The more familiar Thanksgiving precedent accompanied by feasting is traced to the Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated from England in the 1620s and 1630s. They brought their previous tradition of Days of Fasting and Days of Thanksgiving with them to New England. The 1621 Plymouth, Massachusetts thanksgiving was prompted by a good harvest. The Pilgrims celebrated this with the Wampanoags, a tribe of Native Americans who, along with the last surviving Patuxet (a man named Squanto), had helped them get through the previous winter by giving them food in that time of scarcity, in exchange for an alliance and protection against the rival Narragansett tribe.
Several days of Thanksgiving were held in early New England history that have been identified as the “First Thanksgiving”, including Pilgrim holidays in Plymouth in 1621 and 1623, and a Puritan holiday in Boston in 1631. According to historian Jeremy Bangs, director of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, the Pilgrims may have been influenced by watching the annual services of Thanksgiving for the relief of the siege of Leiden in 1574, while they were staying in Leiden. Now called 3 Oktoberfeest, Leiden’s autumn thanksgiving celebration in 1617 was the occasion for sectarian disturbance that appears to have accelerated the pilgrims’ plans to emigrate to America.
Later in New England, religious thanksgiving services were declared by civil leaders such as Governor Bradford, who planned the Plymouth colony’s thanksgiving celebration and feast in 1623. Bradford issued a proclamation of Thanksgiving following victory in the Pequot War in the late 1630s to celebrate “the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.” The practice of holding an annual thanksgiving harvest festival did not become a regular affair in New England until the late 1660s.
Thanksgiving proclamations were made mostly by church leaders in New England up until 1682, and then by both state and church leaders until after the American Revolution. During the revolutionary period, political influences affected the issuance of Thanksgiving proclamations. Various proclamations were made by royal governors, and conversely by patriot leaders, such as John Hancock, General George Washington, and the Continental Congress, each giving thanks to God for events favorable to their causes. As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nationwide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God”, and calling on Americans to “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
New England, Virginia and other places have maintained contradictory claims to having held the first Thanksgiving celebration in what became the United States. The question is complicated by the concept of Thanksgiving as either a holiday celebration or a religious service. James Baker maintains, “The American holiday’s true origin was the New England Calvinist Thanksgiving. Never coupled with a Sabbath meeting, the Puritan observances were special days set aside during the week for thanksgiving and praise in response to God’s providence.” Baker calls the debate a “tempest in a beanpot” and “marvelous nonsense” based on regional claims.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy acknowledged both the Virginia and Massachusetts claims. Kennedy issued Proclamation 3560 on November 5, 1963, stating, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together, and for the faith which united them with their God.”
Other claims include an earlier religious service by Spanish explorers in Texas at San Elizario in 1598. Historians Robyn Gioia and Michael Gannon of the University of Florida argue that the earliest Thanksgiving service in what is now the United States was celebrated by the Spanish community on September 8, 1565, in current Saint Augustine, Florida.
Thanksgiving in the United States has been observed on differing dates. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln, the date of observance varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century, coinciding with, and eventually superseding the holiday of Evacuation Day (commemorating the day the British exited the United States after the Revolutionary War). Modern Thanksgiving was proclaimed for all states in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. Influenced by New Englander Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote letters to politicians for approximately 40 years advocating an official holiday, Lincoln set national Thanksgiving by proclamation for the final Thursday in November in celebration of the bounties that had continued to fall on the Union and for the military successes in the war, also calling on the American people, “with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience .. fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation…” Because of the ongoing Civil War, a nationwide Thanksgiving celebration was not realized until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.
On October 31, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a presidential proclamation changing the holiday to the next to last Thursday in November in an effort to boost the economy. The earlier date created an extra seven days for Christmas shopping since at that time retailers never began promoting the Christmas season until after Thanksgiving. But making the proclamation so close to the change wreaked havoc on the holiday schedules of many people, schools, and businesses, and most Americans were not in favor of the change. Some of those who opposed dubbed the holiday “Franksgiving” that year. Some state governors went along with the change while others stuck with the original November 30 date for the holiday, and three states — Colorado, Mississippi, and Texas — observed both dates. The double Thanksgiving continued for two more years, and then on December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the official national Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday in November starting in 1942 (there are usually four but sometimes five Thursdays in November, depending on the year).
Since 1971, when the American Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect, the American observance of Columbus Day has coincided with the Canadian observance of Thanksgiving.
An interesting little story regarding the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts involves the Indian Squanto, the last survivor of the Patuxet tribe of Virginia. Several years earlier, he was kidnapped by the English and brought to England and basically treated as a circus wildman. He managed to escape his captors and was given shelter in a monastary. There, the monks taught him to speak proper English, as well as to read and write. Working with other monasteries who were sending missionaries to North America, Squanto was able to be smuggled back to Virginia. When he got home, he was devasted to find out his entire tribe had been wiped out by a smallpox epidemic. Alone, he wandered for the next few years and ended up in what is now Massachusetts and was taken in by the Wampanoag Tribe. When the Pilgrims first arrived, the Wampanoags met them and were astonished when an Indian stepped forward and said in perfect English, “Greetings to our English brothers.” The Pilgrims’ first winter was a very difficult one as the Indians did not offer them any assisstance. Squanto told the Wampanoags what had happened to him and said that some English were good and some were bad. The Indians decided to observe the Pilgrims and eventually decided they could be trusted and offered assisstance to them which eventually lead to a bountiful harvest and the First Thanksgiving feast.