It was in 1676 and the day of celebration was not the fourth Thursday in November, but the 29th of June. The November date was selected more than 100 years later by George Washington.
Though the original Thanksgiving observance was held in 1621 by the Massachusetts Bay Colonists with Squanto, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, which had helped the original Puritan settlers to survive their first year, the event was not a regular occurrence. Until 1629, there were only 300 Puritan colonists in the New England area. As more came to these shores from England, including many who had served in Cromwell’s Army, the numbers swelled to about 40,000 by 1670.
On June 20th, 1676, the following statement was issued in Charlestown, Massachusetts:
“The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgements he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions:
The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour, many Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God’s Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being perswaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and soulds as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”
As you can read from the proclamation, this wasn’t a sit down dinner with neighboring Native Americans. At the time, the Colonists were at war with local Indian tribes. The day was intended as a religious observance – a day of thanksgiving prayers for the survival of the Puritans, but also for the massacre of the local Indian tribes which were being slaughtered in a genocidal war. Most of the local Indians which survived were shipped out as slaves and sold as far away as Spain, Tangiers and the Caribbean. Many died as slaves, though they were once noble warriors and respected leaders of their tribes.
An historic proclamation was issued by George Washington during his first year as President. It sets aside Thursday, November 26 as “A Day of Publick Thanksgiving and Prayer.”
Signed by Washington on October 3, 1789 and entitled “General Thanksgiving,” the decree appointed the day “to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and single favors of Almighty God.”
While there were Thanksgiving observances in America both before, and after, Washington’s proclamation, this represents the first to be so designated by the new national government.
During the 1700s, it was common practice for individual colonies to observe days of thanksgiving throughout each year. A Thanksgiving Day two hundred years ago was a day set aside for prayer and fasting, not a day marked by plentiful food and drink as is today’s custom. Later in the 18th century each of the states periodically would designate a day of thanksgiving in honor of a military victory, an adoption of a state constitution or an exceptionally bountiful crop.
Such a Thanksgiving Day celebration celebration was held in December of 1777 by the colonies nationwide, commemorating the surrender of British General Burgoyne at Saratoga.
Later, on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the observance of the fourth Tuesday of November as a national holiday.
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November (to extend the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy). After a storm of protest, Roosevelt changed the holiday again in 1941 to the fourth Thursday in November, where it stands today.