The fabled 1621 “First Thanksgiving” celebrated in elementary school plays across the country was reported on by Edward Winslow in Mourt’s Relation (A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England, 1622) and William Bradford in Of Plymouth Plantation.
Winslow participated in the feast along with his wife Susanna and her two sons. He wrote “our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together,… many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.”
Bradford’s account included the celebration of the harvest and mentioned serving wild turkey, but not attendance by Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanokets, and his people.
In September 1789, Congressman Elias Boudinot of New Jersey introduced a bill in the House of Representatives requesting that President George Washington establish a day of public thanksgiving and prayer “to acknowledge the favors bestowed on them by Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity to peaceably establish a form of government calculated to promote their prosperity and happiness.”
On October 7, 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26th “a Day of public Thanksgiving and Prayer.” The Boudinot proposal and the Washington proclamation were both announced in the Gazette of the United States published in the city of New York.
Thanksgiving harvest festivals were celebrated in a number of states in the first half of the 19th century. In November 1837, New York City’s Morning Herald reported that the city and state governments had issued calls for a day of Thanksgiving on November 30th.
On October 31, 1851, The New York Times reported that New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana, and Ohio would celebrate Thanksgiving Day on Thursday, November 27.
On October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that “In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union . . . 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. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
This Thanksgiving followed the United States victory at Gettysburg during the summer of 1863 and the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19.
On November 10th, Governor Horatio Seymour declared that Thanksgiving would be celebrated in New York State on November 26th as a “day of thanksgiving and prayer . . . In the midst of calamity brought upon our country by the wickedness, folly, and crimes of men… Let us offer fervent prayers that rebellion may be put down, our Union saved, our liberty preserved, and our Constitution and Government upheld.”
New York City Mayor George Opdyke followed with a proclamation that “having been designated by the President of the United States, and by the Governor of this State, as a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, it becomes the duty of every good citizen to refrain from all secular employments on that day, and to devote it to appropriate religious exercises.”
On November 27, The New York Times reported “It is doubtful whether any day of Thanksgiving has been so generally, so purposely observed as yesterday. It broke upon us bright, clear and beautiful, and it really did seem as though Heaven designed participation with the prevailing happiness. At an unusually early hour all business was suspended, and long before the appointed time the several churches were filled to overflowing by those anxious to hear the words of religion and of loyalty… All the charitable and benevolent institutions were supplied from kindly quarters with enough wherewith to feed those under their charge, and many with enough to clothe… Much good was done yesterday – much more than past years have record of.”
The Times also published transcripts of Thanksgiving sermons at a number of churches in New York City and Brooklyn. Henry Ward Beecher, minister of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church told congregants, “Let us pause on the threshold of our thanksgiving to give a word to the martyrs that have fallen. The noblest courage, patience and endurance have been manifested. The young men of the country have fallen by thousands on the field. Would that the young men of the South who have died were not so utterly dead. Would that they had died fighting so bravely for a better cause. They die, indeed, who die for Slavery, and the lapse of years will only make their oblivion more certain. No future historian will feel an enthusiasm in recovering their names to write in the records of a great nation. No future millions will rejoice over their graves, and the only words that charity can write over their burial places will be, ‘Let their names and faults be forgotten.’ But how bright a record is there for those who have died in the defence of their country. Those that die for a good cause are redeemed from death.”
Thanksgiving is possibly the most American of holidays, the first celebrated by new immigrants to the country. As Americans prepare for Thanksgiving in 2023, we need to remember the words spoken in the midst of the Civil War. Thanksgiving is a day to recognize the importance that “peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed.”
It is a day to hope and pray that our Union be saved, “our liberty preserved, and our Constitution and Government upheld.” It is a day to celebrate those who fought and died for justice and to allow those who fought and continue to fight on the side of injustice to disappear into the dustbin of history.
Illustrations, from above: Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” from his 1943 Four Freedoms series (detail); Alexander Gardner photo of Abraham Lincoln with his son Tad (Thomas) in 1865 (courtesy Library of Congress, cropped); and “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” 1869, by Thomas Nast.