An American Thanksgiving Timeline

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Originally, Thanksgiving day in America was set by presidential proclamation. A joint congressional resolution in 1941 settled on the 4th Thursday in November.

Those intrepid souls who left hearth and home to seek a new life in an unknown world deserve their place in American Thanksgiving observances. Arguments over when and where the first Thanksgiving observance occurred are, at best, picayune.

What is not trivial is the fortitude required to face and survive the unknown. Pilgrims to the new world brought a strong belief in God and a desire for self-governance. Wherever they were in the new world, they gave thanks despite severe hardships.

Virginia Settlements

One hundred and four settlers left London for the new world in December 1606. They were accompanied by artisans, craftsmen, and laborers for a total of 214. Their journey ended on May 14, 1607 at Jamestown. The settlers built a fort for protection from the Algonquian natives. Disease and famine also claimed a toll on the settlers. The winter of 1609 was a time of starvation, and only 60 of the original 214 survived. The remaining settlers and the settlement were saved by the arrival of supply ships and a new governor.

In 1619, British settlers led by Captain John Woodlief, landed at Berkeley Plantation near the Charles River in Virginia. There they gave thanks to God for their healthy arrival in the new world.

Massachusetts Settlements

The pilgrims that arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower faced a hard and cold winter in 1670. They lost almost half of their 102 settlers by the time the bountiful 1671 harvest was brought in with the help of the Indians. A three day feast was declared for December 13 through December 15 of 1621. This is the first feast of local harvest associated with giving thanks in the new world. The only food known for certain that they ate was venison and wild fowl. It is known that they had more than enough to feed everyone there for the 3 days.

The governing Council of Charlestown Massachusetts decreed June 29, 1676 as an official day of thanksgiving.

Continental Congress Thanksgiving Proclamations

One hundred years later, the Continental Congress of the United States issued yearly thanksgiving proclamations. Thanksgiving was held on the following dates:

  • Thursday, December 18, 1777
  • Wednesday, December 30, 1778
  • Thursday, December 9, 1779
  • Thursday, December 7, 1780
  • Unknown day of the week, December 13, 1781
  • Thursday, November 28, 1782
  • Second Thursday of December 1783
  • Tuesday, October 19, 1784

Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations

George Washington made the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation declaring Thursday, November 26, 1789 a day of thanksgiving. His second proclamation made Thursday, February 19, 1795 a day of thanksgiving.

John Adams proclaimed in 1798 and 1799 days of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer”. While John Adams specifically called for fasting and did not call the days Thanksgiving, he did call for “fervent thanksgiving to the Author of All Good” to be observed. The days observed were Wednesday, May 9, 1798 and Thursday, April 25, 1799.

There were no presidential Thanksgiving proclamations again until two from James Madison, setting aside Thursday, January 12, 1815 and the second Thursday of November 1815. The first was a call for prayer for safety and the restoration of peace in war time. The second on the same year was for “acknowledgements to Almighty God for His great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessing of peace”.

The next president to issue Thanksgiving proclamations was Abraham Lincoln, again, in time of war. His 1863 proclamation after the war, making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November, was the first of yearly presidential thanksgiving proclamations to follow. While there was some variation, Thanksgiving was generally declared to be the last Thursday in November.

By 1939, the American public was so used to celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November, that they continued to observe thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday, in opposition to the third Thursday proclaimed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR proclaimed the third Thursday of November Thanksgiving in 1939, 1940, and 1941. A joint resolution of congress on December 26, 1941 restored Thanksgiving to the last Thursday of November, ending presidential discretion over the date.

All people on American shores have a tradition of thanksgiving. The settlers and explorers, with the help of the Indians, were grateful from the very beginning of colonization. The endurance of great hardships did not deter, but encouraged, observations of thanksgiving. The intrepid pilgrims of Plymouth Rock are traditionally honored as the symbol of the beginning of the nation. This Thanksgiving, remember all forefathers who shaped America by first giving thanks.