Did York’s Thanksgiving proclamation indeed create America’s first Thanksgiving?

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This First Thanksgiving marker is a bit off the street in downtown York unlike the other dozen markers that relate to the Continental Congress’ visit to York in 1777-78. It’s located in a park that offers a bit of sanctuary to the lunchtime sandwich crowd, located between M&T Bank and the East Market Street Parking Garage. Background posts: Where was Thomas Jefferson when Congress met in York?, American Revolution was a young man’s fight and York Town Square’s American Revolution category .

York County has put forth many interesting claims to fame over the years, some of which are hard to prove: York Fair is the nation’s oldest. York was the Detroit of the East. York was the nation’s first capital.
Another one of these is that the first national Thanksgiving was spawned from York. There’s something to the nuanced claim, but not enough to make it a consensus outside York County… .


The whole thing revolves around the Continental Congress, meeting in York in 1777-78, resolving to set aside a day in December for thanksgiving and praise after receiving news of a desperately needed Continental Army win at Saratoga.
This was the first of seven such days during the American Revolution.
The problem is that little there’s little consensus among those who have studied the holiday about York’s proclamation being the first. For example, Encyclopedia Britannica does not even mention the Continental Congress’ actions in relation to Thanksgiving.
Some associate it with the Pilgrims.
Some with George Washington’s presidency.
Some with the Lincoln presidency, when it became an annual holiday.
In fact, Continental Congress had previously set aside days for “humiliation, fasting and prayer,” which clearly would have included thanksgiving.
Here’s what I wrote about the lack of national acceptance of the First National Thanksgiving claim in “Nine Months in York Town”:

American historians only occasionally give weight to the days of thanksgiving during the Revolutionary War as part of their work on the holiday.
This perhaps stems from the fact that these thanksgiving observances predate the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, a watershed event that established the U.S. presidency, and the fact that Thanksgiving didn’t become an annually observed national holiday until 1863.
The National Thanksgiving Foundation is one organization that treats the National Thanksgiving Proclamation as a seminal event. “That night he (proclamation writer Samuel Adams) gave each of us the national thanksgiving tradition which every American has known since infancy.” the foundation noted. “Thanksgiving could have died out a quaint New England custom, an accident of history, but Adams’ determination started this – our most beautiful national tradition.”

The National Thanksgiving Foundation is not a heavyweight think tank.
It’s safe to say that the York proclamation effectively extended the New England custom to all the states, and it gained some traction among Americans in December 1777 as a one-day observance.
But it was far from the annual Thanksgiving celebration we know today. In fact, one journalist, writing for National Review Online, saw it as an unthankful attempt by some congressmen to throw support for commander in chief of the Continental Army toward Saratoga victor Horatio Gates and away from George Washington.
Here’s a bit more background from a York Daily Record story I wrote a few years ago:

The Thanksgiving tradition in America originated with the Pilgrims’ celebration after a full harvest in the fall of 1621. Early in the Revolutionary War, Congress set aside days for all the colonies to observe “humiliation, fasting and prayer.” The Proclamation of Thanksgiving and Praise that Congress issued in York Town after the Saratoga surrender was the first of seven such days declared during the American Revolution. After taking office under the U.S. Constitution, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, as a national Thanksgiving Day. But Thanksgiving was not yet an annual event across the nation. It gained that status when President Abraham Lincoln declared in 1863 the last Thursday of November as national Thanksgiving Day. It has been celebrated annually ever since. Congress changed it in 1941 to the fourth Thursday of November.

(To see blogger June Lloyd’s analyses on this First Thanksgiving question, click here.)

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.

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