Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the settlers at Plymouth in the Massachusetts colony in 1621 under the leadership of Governor William Bradford, when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.
Although this feast is considered by many to the very first Thanksgiving celebration, it was actually in keeping with a long tradition of celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for a successful bounty of crops.
George Washington and James Madison each issued a Thanksgiving proclamation once during their Presidencies.
Thanksgiving as a national U.S. holiday is actually a more recent tradition – when Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation that the holiday was established as a national annual event, occurring on the last Thursday of November.
Lincoln was inspired by a series of editorials and letters written by Sarah Josepha Hale, the New England editor of the hugely influential magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. Though he initially resisted Hale’s appeals, Lincoln eventually embraced the idea of creating a national Thanksgiving holiday as a day of unity amid the strife of the war.
The first observance of the national holiday came one week after the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The language of the proclamation is beautiful and marked by a rare felicity of expression.
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the everwatchful providence of almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.
Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.
–President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, October 3, 1863