Many believe the “First American Thanksgiving” occurred in December, 1621. But as with many American traditions, it’s difficult to pin down the precise origin. American truly is a melting pot of worlds. In doing a little research I found many celebrations claiming to be the first American Thanksgiving. The earliest one I found was in May 1541 when “Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, led 1,500 men in a thanksgiving celebration at the Palo Duro Canyon. Coronado's expedition traveled north from Mexico City in 1540 in search of gold. The group camped alongside the canyon, in the modern-day Texas Panhandle, for two weeks in the spring of 1541. The Texas Society Daughters of the American Colonists commemorated the event as the "first Thanksgiving" in 1959.”
Then, from that same source on June 30th 1564 “French Huguenot colonists celebrated in solemn praise and thanksgiving in a settlement near what is now Jacksonville, Florida. The colony was destroyed by a Spanish raiding party in 1565. This "first Thanksgiving," however, was later commemorated at the Fort Carolina Memorial on the St. Johns River.”
Other Thanksgivings that notably occurred, 1607 when English settlers led by Captain George Popham joined Abnaki Indians along Maine's Kennebec River for a harvest feast and prayer meeting. And another in 1610 in Jamestown, Virginia where colonist held a thanksgiving prayer service after English supply ships arrived with food.
Settlers held their first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation on December 4, 1619, a year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth. The settlers of James River at Berkeley actually made a proclamation that the first Sunday in November be a Thanksgiving Festival.
This is the first time an annual celebration was arranged that I could locate. Here’s their proclamation: "Wee ordaine that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."
One hundred and two brave passengers set sail leaving Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620, arriving over two months later in Massachusetts during late November. Upon landing, the new settlers wrote and signed Mayflower Compact which says:
“In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc. Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the eleventh of November [New Style, November 21], in the year of the reign of our sovereign lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Dom. 1620.”
Not being prepared for the harsh winter meant nearly half lost their lives before spring, leaving only 53 people, twenty-two of the survivors being men. The settlers were prayerful people; and as God so often does, he brought people alongside them to help: Samoset and soon after, Squanto. These men of Divine intervention were among the participants of that “First Thanksgiving” feast.
You might be interested to know the foods of the dinner as were chronicled by William Bradford and Edward Winslow. You might also want to view their full diaries William Bradford~ Of Plymouth Plantation and Edward Winslow~ Mourt’s Relation.
You might think that the tradition of Thanksgiving by this point had been set. But you’d also be wrong by a long shot. The next recorded Thanksgiving Day came in 1623 when the pilgrims gratefully received rain after Governor William Bradford called for a day of solemn prayer seeking God's mercy to end a drought. When the rain came he proclaimed a day of thanksgiving.
From there our history is rife with days of fasting, prayer and thanksgiving. I found one woman’s desire to find answers about the history of American Thanksgiving most interesting Karen Nelte. Her account from 1621 forward is well sourced http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/thanksgiving_nelte.html, and I enjoyed reading it.
Connecticut is believed to be the first place in America to set up an annual Thanksgiving Day although although the mid-1600s, Thanksgiving as we know it today began to take shape. Records show proclamations of Thanksgiving for September 18, 1639, as well as 1644, and after 1649.
From 1775-1784 Congress issued eight separate national Thanksgiving Proclamations and seven separate proclamations for times of fasting and prayer, for a total of 15 official prayer proclamations during the American Revolution.
America’s first national Thanksgiving occurred in 1789. President George Washington on October 3, 1789 signed the "General Thanksgiving," decree and appointed that day "to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God." This was to commemorate the completion of the draft of Bill of Rights, which had been completed on September 25th of that same year.
Well the Thanksgiving tradition STILL wasn’t an annual event following President Washington’s initial proclamation, national Thanksgiving Proclamations occurred only periodically: President Washington again in 1795, John Adams in 1799, James Madison in 1814 and again in 1815. There was lots of proclaiming going on.
“The Thanksgiving proclamation issued by Lincoln was remarkable not only for its strong religious content but also for its timing, for it was delivered in the midst of the darkest days of the Civil War, with the Union having lost battle after battle throughout the first three years of that conflict. Yet, despite those dark circumstances, Lincoln nevertheless called Americans to prayer with an air of positive optimism and genuine thankfulness, noting that:”
“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the Source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, Who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”
“That remarkable Thanksgiving Proclamation came at a pivotal point in Lincoln’s spiritual life. Three months earlier, the Battle of Gettysburg had resulted in the loss of some 60,000 American lives. It had been while Lincoln was walking among the thousands of graves there at Gettysburg that he first committed his life to Christ. As he later explained to a clergyman:”
“When I left Springfield [Illinois, to assume the Presidency], I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ.
The dramatic spiritual impact resulting from that experience was not only visible in Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation (and also his 1864 call for a day of prayer and fasting) but especially in his 1865 Second Inaugural Address.
Over the seventy-five years following Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation, presidents faithfully followed Lincoln’s precedent, annually declaring a national Thanksgiving Day (but the date of the celebrations varied widely from proclamation to proclamation). In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, and in 1941, Congress permanently established that day as the national Thanksgiving holiday.
Thanksgiving is the oldest American holiday and one with the richest spiritual thread. It is hallowed time where American’s know and publicly recognize their reliance on God, and the need to fast, pray and give thanks to the Creator of the Universe.
My hope and prayer this Thanksgiving is for Americans to be truly Thankful. President Lincoln so wonderfully wrote: “They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”