A couple of years ago, I called Thanksgiving "The Immigrants Holiday" because nearly every shipload of Europeans who came to our shores continued their long-standing tradition of taking a time to rejoice and praise God for a safe journey. They all did, whether Catholic or Church of England explorers trying to colonize the New World for their King, or Separatist Protestant refugees seeking freedom to worship Christ according to their own consciences. These weren't "harvest festivals", nor were they unusual or "uniquely American". They were simply the custom of Christian peoples everywhere.
The picture-book Thanksgiving was a part of this culture, just like going to church on Sundays and saying grace before meals. In October 1621, the Mayflower Pilgrims and Pawtuxet Indians celebrated such an event, much like all these others. It captured popular imagination 250 years later in the 1850s when Sarah Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladys Book & primary lobbyist for a national Thanksgiving Day, used it as a symbol of those early times.* Oddly enough, there’s less documentation for this event than most of the other Thanksgivings on this list! Sarah Hale simply picked it out as a great “narrative” to sell her idea, just as marketers do today.
But by the time the Pilgrims arrived, nearly a century of regular Thanksgivings in North, South & Central America had gone before. Shiploads of passengers led by explorers from Spain, France, England, The Netherlands, Italy, and Portugal, planned their thanksgiving feasts as a matter of course and held them as soon as possible after they finally reached safety again.
Here's a list of a few of them. Texas gets to claim two of the very earliest!
May 23, 1541, near Canyon, Texas. A Thanksgiving feast was celebrated by explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and the "Tejas" Native Americans. The reason? Of all his finds, the discovery of good sources of wild foods, grapes and pecans, was cause for a day of rejoicing.
June 30, 1564 “Fort Caroline”, near Jacksonville, Florida: one of the earliest groups of French Huguenots to seek religious liberty in America, led by Jean Ribault, held a day of Thanksgiving. This settlement was destroyed soon thereafter by Spanish soldiers (led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles) in the ongoing battle between Spain and France for supremacy in the New World as well as the old.
September 8, 1565 St Augustine, Florida: the 400 settlers from Spain travelling with Pedro Menendez de Aviles celebrated a feast of Thanksgiving when their ship landed safely. The Timucua Indians joined them, bringing local foods to the table.
August or September 1578 Frobisher Bay area of Baffin Island, Nunavut Territory, Canada: Martin Frobisher's expedition celebrated the first Thanksgiving recorded in Canada. Today, Canada celebrates Thanksgiving much like the USA does, except it is held in October.
April 30, 1598 San Elizario, Texas (near El Paso): the 500 members of the de Onate expedition held a feast of Thanksgiving, with the native Manso Indian tribe as guests, to celebrate their safe arrival 10 days earlier at the Rio Grande after months of trekking up from Mexico. This was the first group to travel the newly blazed El Camino Real.
1604 Port Royal, Acadia, Canada: French settlers with explorer Samuel de Champlain held their first Thanksgiving feast in 1604 and thereafter. This is the group that founded 'The Order of Good Cheer', sharing their food with their Native American neighbors.
August 9, 1607 Fort St. George, Kennebec River, Maine: the newly arrived colonists of this short-lived New England settlement held its first Thanksgiving soon after making landfall, led by English Captain George Popham and joined by the Abnaki Indians.
1610 Jamestown, Virginia: Settlers of the famous English colony held a Thanksgiving to celebrate the arrival of ships bringing them new supplies of food after a harsh winter during which many starved to death.
December 4, 1619 The Berkeley Hundred, near Jamestown, Virigina: this group of settlers had planned before leaving England to hold a feast of Thanksgiving immediately on arrival, and annually thereafter. Many were killed in the massacre of 1622 and the site abandoned.
October, 1621, Plymouth, Massachusetts: this was the feast that came to symbolize the history of our Christian heritage, held by the Mayflower Pilgrims and Native Americans in the vicinity. It was probably not their first such celebration held by the Mayflower group, but is the only one for which any documentation survives.
1623, Plymouth, Massachusetts: The governor of the Plymouth colony called for a special day of Thanksgiving for the end of a drought that plagued the colony.
July 8, 1630, Massachusetts: Puritan settlers observed the first Thanksgiving of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England. This colony began having Thanksgiving days every year from 1660 onward.
September 18, 1639 Connecticut: the governor proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving, and by 1649, the colony celebrated a Thanksgiving day each year.
And thereafter it snowballed. By the time our 13 colonies had joined themselves together as a loose fraternity of independent & sovereign nation-states, each proclaimed a Thanksgiving at various times, as needed or as events warranted. This continued for another hundred years, until President Lincoln made it a permanent feature on the calendar for the whole nation.
The true history of Thanksgiving is a testament to our Christian heritage, upholding freedom to worship God in accordance with our own consciences.
A part of that freedom includes the freedom to "not worship", giving a bit of space to unbelievers, but the bulk of this freedom is the privilege to be religious: the freedom to worship God without being arrested, liberty not to be punished by the government if we believe some things are sinful.
The freedom to shout "Jesus" from the rooftops in every neighborhood, to "Preach the Gospel to all nations", using an uncensored bible in our own language, that we can read & interpret for ourselves.
How relevant is this today?
This very week, former President George W. Bush was honored to be entrusted with a handwritten Bible, made and secretly used in a Chinese labor camp by Chinese Christians who were imprisoned for attending "an illegal religious gathering".
China claims to be the largest publisher of Bibles in the world - for export. Yet the repressive communist government does not allow any freedom of religion - people are required to worship only where, when and how the Chinese government tells them they can. They can only have the version of the Bible that the government allows.
Afghanistan was visited by the apostles during Biblical times - Christianity is as old in Afghanistan as anywhere in the world. Yet the Bible is illegal there, and to be a Christian is to risk prison, or worse.
And in the United States of America itself, intolerant unbelievers have begun denying Christians freedom to practice our faith. Christians have been arrested and tried for the crime of preaching the Gospel to Moslems in Michigan. For "preaching too loudly" in North Carolina. For reading the Bible to people on the sidewalk in California.
This Thanksgiving, let us give thanks to our Father God for sending His Son Jesus Christ to save the world, for giving us the earthly blessings that are the fruit of Christianity: liberty, justice, equality, a good and moral society; and let us ask Him for laborers for the harvest, that America may continue to know our Father's favor. Godly leadership is needed more now than ever.
*Aug 22, 2017: edited to correct broken link & add new ones about Sarah Hale. Thank you to reader Ellen for alerting me and sharing a great link about yet another highly successful and influential working woman in the early 1800s.