Tradition tells us that the first Thanksgiving was a three-day celebration by the pilgrims after their first harvest in the new world, in 1621. This feast was attended by 90 Indians and 53 pilgrims. New England colonists regularly celebrated Thanksgivings, defined as days of prayer thanking God for blessings, for everything from the end of a drought to a military victory. In fact, days of Thanksgiving were a common occurrence as early as 1607, when the first settlers arrived in Jamestown. There were several recorded instances of Thanksgiving feasts and celebrations throughout that century.
But none of them are our first national Thanksgiving, because before the Revolutionary War, we were not a nation.
In October of 1777, this country was deeply involved in a war for independence. The continental congress had been meeting in Philadelphia in September, but hearing that the British were coming, they fled the city and met briefly in Lancaster, before deciding to put a river between them and the enemy troops. They crossed the Susquehanna and settled into York Pa., where they remained until June of 1778.
The congressmen of 1777 were working the details of what would become the Articles of Confederation, the first step in becoming a new nation. They were also struggling with the logistics of supplying soldiers with food, clothing, medicine, and weapons to continue their battles against the British troops. And those battles had not been going well. George Washington's troops had recently been defeated at Brandywine, and at Germantown. Winter was approaching, and the troops were poorly prepared, and demoralized by defeats.
On October 17th 1777, British General Burgoyne surrendered his entire army to Horatio Gates near Saratoga, New York, a much needed victory for the patriots. The battle at Saratoga was a decisive victory for the continental army. They had been in retreat since the British capture of Fort Ticonderoga in July of that year. The British plan was to cut the New England Colonies off from the middle and southern colonies, but that plan failed with their defeat at Saratoga.
Samuel Adams, one of the congressmen working in York Pa., wrote to James Warren. "“We have just now received a satisfactory Account of the great Success of our Arms on the 14th Inst. under General Gates. The Express is expected every Hour…. Congress will, I suppose, recommend the setting apart one Day of publick (sic) Thanksgiving to be observed throughout the united States.”
A recommendation was written to the states, to "set apart a day of thanksgiving, for the signal success, lately obtained over the enemies of these United States." The next day a report was read, and accepted, by the congress.
“For as much as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success:
"It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these United States to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, Independence and Peace: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth "in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.
"And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.”
On December 17, George Washington and his men were camped at Gulpin, Pa. Washington informed his men that they would be marching six miles to the west to camp at Valley Forge for the winter, and he further ordered:
“Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the General directs that the army remain in it’s present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and brigades. And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensably necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.”
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