The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1620), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914. Photo: Wikipedia.

According to popular legend, the First Thanksgiving, celebrated at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts in 1621 to celebrate the settlement’s first harvest, was attended by 50 pilgrims and 90 Native Americans, led by King Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe. The Wampanoags had shared their food with the settlers and taught them to plant corn and catch eel. But more recent research has revealed that “thanksgiving services were routine in what became the Commonwealth of Virginia as early as 1607, with the first permanent settlement of Jamestown, Virginia holding a thanksgiving in 1610” ( Sir William Throckmorton’s 1619 “Ordinances Directions and Instructions” for the governance of Berkeley Hundred plantation in Charles City County, Virginia—on the James River about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown—included the direction that “wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for planta[tion] in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetualy keept holy as a day of thanksgiuing to Almighty God” (Encyclopedia Virginia). 

While George Washington proclaimed a thanksgiving observance in 1789, its celebration was intermittent until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, when Thanksgiving became a federal holiday. In 1863, during the Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. To strike a compromise between the rival regional claims, President John F. 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.” As we continue this tradition, we wish you and yours a blessed Thanksgiving celebration. 


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