On October 3, 1789, America’s first President under the 1787 Constitution, George Washington, issued a historic Thanksgiving Proclamation. Congress had instructed him to “recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.” This he did. Many consider this the nation’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation. But was it? Well, that depends.
There had been many previous days of a general giving of thanks in America’s history, some bearing little relation to our present holiday. Many took place long before America was a country, under the reign of the monarchs of England. A 1678 document from Boston set a day of “fasting and prayer” for November 21 of that year for the “obtaining of the Lord’s gracious expression of himself unto, and continuance with us…” Likewise, in 1721, then-Governor of Massachusetts Gurdon Saltonstall issued “a Proclamation for a Publick Thanksgiving,” also in November. There are some who point to early Spanish celebrations during the 16th century, but these have little to do with what we celebrate today.
So when was the first Thanksgiving Day as we know it now? Here are a few options. You be the judge.
1) The Pilgrim harvest feast of 1621 is the inspiration for our holiday today. But a larger and more organized event in 1623 was the first recorded religious day of thanks for the new arrivals.
2) The first national Thanksgiving Day after the country declared its independence was set forth by President of the Continental Congress Henry Laurens. Laurens set aside a Thursday in December of 1777 to thank God for the victory at Saratoga over General Burgoyne’s Army, a major accomplishment for the upstart colonists.