Beyond a doubt, the event Americans celebrate the fourth Thursday in November recalls the Thanksgiving the Pilgrims celebrated with the Indians at Plymouth in 1621. The custom of holding annual Thanksgivings began with individual Plymouth congregations and like-minded Christians in Connecticut. Yet, many stoutly contend that the first “real Thanksgiving” was celebrated in their particular part of the world. These claims come from Virginia, Maine, Florida, and Texas!
It is true that on May 23, 1541, the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who marched from Mexico in search of gold, held a thanksgiving service in the Texas Panhandle, rejoicing that he had found food, water, and pasture for his horses. But Diana Karter Appelbaum, author of Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History, maintains that “claiming this as the first Thanksgiving, is a fine example of Texas braggadocio.”
It is also true that on June 20, 1564, René de Laudonniere joined with his colony of French Huguenots as they sought to settle near present day Jacksonville, Florida, and “sang a psalm of thanksgiving unto God.” But the fledgling colony was wiped out the next year by a Spanish raiding party.
Another claim for “the first Thanksgiving” comes from Maine. On August 9, 1607, George Popham led a band of English settlers to the mouth of the Kennebec River and held a thanksgiving service in gratitude for a safe voyage, but the colony was also abandoned in less than a year.
The most impressive claim for “the first Thanksgiving,” apart from the case for Plymouth and the Pilgrims, comes from Virginia. At the very moment that the beleaguered settlers in Jamestown had given up hope, Lord De la Warr sailed up the James River in the spring of 1610, carrying food and supplies. The delighted colonists greeted him with a service of thanksgiving.
Other Virginia historians cite the service at Berkely Hundred on December 4, 1619, when Captain John Woodleaf wrote, “We ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Certainly Woodleaf expressed Christian intentions, but in 1622 an Indian attack obliterated his colony.
Historians, who see the Pilgrims’ feast with the Indians at Plymouth in the autumn of 1621 as the origin of our annual Thanksgiving celebration recognize that other “thanksgivings” preceded it. However, with the exception of Jamestown, these were celebrated by settlements that did not endure and left no legacy. Jamestown, of course, did become a permanent settlement, but it had no part in the historical continuum that made this day of thanks an annual event, for this tradition was strictly focused in New England.
While the Puritans who settled Boston became a part of this colonial pattern, they did not have their first thanksgiving until ten years after the Pilgrims’ first celebration, and the Puritans originally resisted annual thanksgivings (thanksgiving for general causes) on the grounds that such yearly festivals “would make the people overly confident of the Lord’s generosity.” By contrast, the Plymouth colonists did not object to proclaiming thanksgiving for general causes.
The one colony that most deserves to share the recognition for launching the American custom of Thanksgiving with Plymouth is Connecticut. When the brilliant Rev. Thomas Hooker left Boston and settled in Hartford, he promptly called for three Connecticut towns to join together in forming a colony.
Hooker followed the Pilgrim pattern and led the people of Connecticut in framing a written compact for civil self-government rooted in Mosaic tradition. He used as his text, “Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you.” (Deuteronomy 1:13). Hooker preached a scholarly sermon that guided the men of Connecticut in framing the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639, commonly called “the world’s first complete written constitution,” though, in fact, Plymouth had framed a complete constitutional charter, the Pilgrim Code of Law, three years before.
Hooker and his congregation also followed the Pilgrim pattern of thanksgiving, and these Connecticut believers actually initiated the practice of systematically celebrating Thanksgiving. As Applebaum writes, they did it “every year from 1649 onward. This was the crucial innovation.... When Connecticut made Thanksgiving an annual festival for general causes ... a new holiday was born. Thanksgiving in Connecticut was held every autumn, not for special reasons, but in gratitude for the ordinary blessing of the ‘year past’ and for the ‘fruits of the earth.’”
*Dr. Charles Hull Wolfe is president of the Plymouth Rock Foundation