Thanksgiving is a major holiday celebrated in the USA and Canada, with origins dating back centuries to Colonial times. The notion of celebrating a harvest of plenty was dramatic event in early Colonial America, since food supplies were far from dependable. Years of massive starvation were as common as times of plenty.
Although Native Americans were known to have harvest celebrations for centuries, if not millennia, before arrival of Europeans, the quintessence of Thanksgiving in all regions was a joint celebration of colonists and indigenous peoples, sharing the bounty of autumn and their common survival. Complicating the history of Thanksgiving are the contrary ciaims of a number of distinct North American locations regarding where the first Thanksgiving was celebrated.
It is likely that Thanksgiving celebrations arose independently in several distinct locations along the Eastern Seaboard, and these celebrations had several common denominators including the worship of God and the use of the word Thanksgiving; each of these early feasts in disparate locations also shared the concept of a joint celebration with indigenous peoples of America coming together with the settlers arriving from Europe. Many of the foods appearing in early Thanksgivings might surprise 21st century Americans, with servings of eel, clams, mussels, sturgeon and chickpea stew along with what modern Americans regard as Thanksgiving staples of Wild Turkey, squash, pumpkin, corn and beets.
The site and date of origin of Thanksgiving are matters of great dispute, with regional claims being made by widely disparate locations in North America. The chief claims are as follows:
- Saint Augustine, Florida. 1565
- Baffin Island, Canada. 1578
- Jamestown, Virginia. 1619
- Plymouth, Massachusetts. 1621
Each of these venues have merit in describing the nature of their relative claims of being the first. What we learn from this spirited debate is that the notion of Thanksgiving in the New World had a natural evolution in several locales as an expression of giving thanks for surviviing in a difficult era, with distinctly different sustenance requirements from the Old World, from which colonists derived.
Engraving of Timucua village circa 1565. Source: Le Moyne/ engraver Theodor de Bry The earliest European settled city in the USA was founded in 1565 by Admiral Pedro Menendez del Aviles, who arrived from Spain via the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Stream commanding a fleet of over thrity ships. The landing by Menendez occurred on September 8, 1565 among considerable pomp and "thundering of [ceremonial] artillery". Father Francisco de Mendoza Grajales led the landing celebration with a hymn of joy and thanksgiving: Te Deum Laudamus. The Thanksgiving feast that ensued was thus an expansive festival with the welcoming Timucua tribe in attendance. This Thanksgiving, truly a Catholic religious celebration, was more of a safe landing ceremonial event than a survival of hardship that would characterize Baffin Island, Jamestown and Plymouth. The Saint Augustine feast was endowed with the plenty of foods in Menendez's ships, combined with the hearty cocida (chickpea stew) dishes of the Timucua.
In 1578 Martin Frobisher was conducting his third unsuccessful voyage in search for the elusive Northwest Passage to Asia. Icy waters and storms drove his vessels to land on Baffin Island, in present day Nunavit. A celebration with indigenous peoples was held for survival and thanksgiving. A proclamation was issued by the survivors of the nine ships in Frobisher's fleet, and according to Morrill: "a general thanksgiving to God was proclaimed". Although this date is earlier than Jamestown or Plymouth, the sparse level of documentary detail and lack of archaeological recovery does not well support this claim to one of the earliest Thanksgiving celebrations.
Archaeological digs at Jamestown have recovered clues to Thanksgiving feasts of early times. Source: Sarah Stierch To appreciate the first Thanksgiving at Jamestown, one needs to understand the historic backdrop of a colony fraught with hardship, notably the Starving Time of 1609-1610, where colonists not only were restricted to a paucity of food, but items of miserable quality and leading to a large fraction of the European population perishing in that winter. Archaeological excavations of a colonial middens pit predating the year 1610 documents the dispair of hungry men at Jamestown with discovery of bones of butchered dogs, as well as remains of turtles and poisonous snakes. In years of plenty the main staples of the colony would include sturgeon, cod and eel. Thus the first recognized Thanksgiving at Jamestown was not so much a feast of cornucopia, but a celebration that most men had enough food to survive.
The date of December 4, 1619 is the date of the first Thanksgiving in Jamestown. This celebration also marked an arrival of 38 English settlers who survived a stormy Atlantic crossing with some fresh supplies. Documentation of this Thanksgiving is in the form of a proclamation of those in attendance: "the day of our ships arrivall at the place assgned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall by yearly and perputualy keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God." The exact location of the celebration of Thanksgiving was at the Berkeley Plantation, several miles up the James River from Jamestown.
Although the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts was the latest of the series of early Thanksgiving celebrations, the events were extremely well documented and memorialized, leading Plymouth to be the most vaunted of all the colonial Thanksgiving feasts. In 1620, the Mayflower arrived with predominantly Puritan settlers from Plymouth, England. After a harsh winter, when perhaps half of the colony died, the subsequent autumn had an abundant harvest. At that tiem the governor of the Plymouth Colony prepared for a celebration of Thanksgiving. An early part of the planning began with the Governor sending a party of four men into the woods to hunt Wild Turkey to be added to the abundant venison stores. However, a large part of the feasting was made on seafoods such as eel and cod.
Chief Massasoit brought 90 of the Wampanoag tribe to the Thanksgiving celebration, in recognition of the abundant harvest being due, in part, to cooperation with the Native Americans who assisted colonists through the first year of survival.
- James W. Baker.. 2009. Thanksgiving: the biography of an American holiday (Google eBook) UPNE, 2009. 273 pages
- Richard Collinson. 2010. The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher: In Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West, A.D. 1576-8 Cambridge University Press. 2010 420 pages
- Robyn Gioia. 2007. America's Real First Thanksgiving: St. Augustine, Florida, September 8, 1565. Pineapple Press Inc 48 pages
- Frank Jones (vicar of St. Paul, Forest Hill.), Martin Frobisher (sir.) 1878. The life of sir Martin Frobisher (Google eBook)
- Ann Morrill. 2009. Thanksgiving and Other Harvest Festivals. Infobase Publishing. 104 pages
- Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 2007. Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown: the official guide to America's historic triangle. John F. Blair, Publisher. 280 pages