In his first presidential proclamation, George Washington designated November 26, 1789 as a Day of National Thanksgiving. The next president to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation was Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863, also designated November 26. In October of his third year in office, Lincoln invited Americans to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise.”
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th. day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.
George Washington, Proclamation, October 3, 1789. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress
Thanksgiving was practiced in America by early British colonists. In a letter dated September 4, 1619, Sir William Throckmorton, Richard Bearkley, George Thorpe, and John Smyth gave Captain John Woodlief various orders, including one for an annual religious observance of thanksgiving at the newly established Berkeley Hundred plantation in Virginia.
Impr[imatur] wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for planta[tion] in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetualy keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.
Sir William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, et al., Ordinances Direccones and Instructions to Captaine John Woodlefe in The Records of the Virginia Company of London, volume 3, page 207. Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827
The origin of the American Thanksgiving tradition of feasting, though, is generally credited to the Pilgrims. As early as 1621, the puritan colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts set aside a day of thanks for a bountiful harvest. Throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, official days of feasting and fasting commemorated periods of good and poor fortune.
When Boston Harbor was closed in retribution for the Boston Tea Party, for example, Massachusetts authorities declared a fast day. The Virginia House of Burgesses ordered fasting in support of the Bay colony. Complying with the proclamation, on June 1, 1774, George Washington noted in his diary, “Went to Church and fasted all day.”
Most early Thanksgiving days were spontaneous celebrations, however, by the mid-nineteenth century an annual fall Thanksgiving meal was customary throughout much of the United States and its Territories. During the gold rush, miners far from home observed a day of thanks. On December 1, 1850, Alfred T. Jackson of Litchfield County, Connecticut described his California Thanksgiving.
Although there was nothing to show it, we observed Thursday as Thanksgiving, as that was the legal day in the States. All we did was to lay off and eat quail stew and dried apple pie. I thought a lot about the old folks and would like to have been home with them, and I guess I will be next year…
Alfred T. Jackson, December 1, 1850. The Diary of a Forty-Niner p. 38. “California As I Saw It”: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900
For more than a decade, writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale pushed for an annual day of national Thanksgiving. From the helm of several prominent women’s magazines, Hale editorialized about the importance of a national Thanksgiving celebration. She also wrote to President Lincoln directly. On October 3, 1863, in the wake of Union victory at the Civil War battle at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln decided to issue his first Thanksgiving Proclamation; his second followed in 1864. The President’s Hymn, composed in honor of the new holiday, rang out across the nation.
Give thanks, all ye people, give thanks to the Lord,
Alleluias of freedom with joyful accord:
Let the East and the West, North and South roll along,
Sea, mountain and prairie, One thanksgiving song.
Since Lincoln in 1863, every President of the United States has issued an annual Thanksgiving Proclamation, each citing a specific date. While most proclaimed Thanksgiving for the fourth or last Thursday of November, Franklin D. Roosevelt chose the third Thursdays of November 1939 through 1941, for economic reasons. Late in 1941, Congress passed Thanksgiving legislation that Roosevelt signed into law on December 26, 1941. Public Law 77-379 set Thanksgiving Days from 1942 onward to the fourth Thursday in November. The Law also made Thanksgiving Day an annual Federal Holiday.
- Search for Thanksgiving or Thanksgiving sale in Chronicling America, a collection of millions of American newspaper pages from 1789 to 1922. Limit the search to 1789 to see what the Gazette of the United-States published about Thanksgiving that year.
- African American Perspectives 1818-1907 contains five Thanksgiving Day addresses from the period 1875-1897. Search the collection on the term thanksgiving to read sermons which include Benjamin William Arnett’s Centennial Thanksgiving Sermon.
- Recall past Thanksgiving Days. Search the collection, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 for Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving dinner, and turkey to access interviews like A Preacher Tries Farming.
- Read The Frontier Holiday. This collection of brief first-person descriptions chronicles the celebration of Christmas, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving in nineteenth-century Minnesota. Find this book and other pioneer recollections by searching on the term on Thanksgiving. in the collection Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820 to 1910
- Search on the terms turkey, harvest, pumpkin, or canning in the collection Tending the Commons to see images, and hear tell of events, associated with the U.S. Thanksgiving celebration. (Thanksgiving is celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada.)