We’re all familiar with the traditions and trappings of Thanksgiving Day in the United States and the popular narrative behind the reason for its celebration. 2021 marks the 400th anniversary of the harvest feast shared by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621, the event many Americans consider to be the “first” Thanksgiving. However, the history of Thanksgiving as a national holiday on the fourth Thursday of November has historical significance for many reasons. Here is a brief history of the establishment of a national holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States.

The harvest feast held by New England settlers and the Wampanoag in Plymouth in 1621 is generally remembered as the “first” thanksgiving in the United States, and the inspiration behind the national holiday in November; however, the settlers did not immediately establish the holiday as an annual tradition. Records indicate that Connecticut was the first colony to adopt an annual day of general thanksgiving by a proclamation dated September 18, 1639. Massachusetts Bay Colony, the home of the original Pilgrims, didn’t begin its official annual observances of a day of thanksgiving until 1660. Individual colonies and communities observed the tradition of a day of thanksgiving prayer and feasts over the next century and a half until George Washington proclaimed the first national observance of Thanksgiving in 1789 after a resolution was passed by the First Federal Congress. New York was the first state to officially adopt an annual Thanksgiving holiday in 1817, decades before Thanksgiving was finally established as a national, annual holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. Many attribute this to the decades-long effort of magazine editor and author Sarah Josepha Hale, or the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” who began an editorial campaign in the popular American Ladies Magazine in 1827 to establish the national holiday.

Lincoln’s proclamation is considered to be the founding of the modern holiday of Thanksgiving, and every president since has released an annual proclamation for the holiday. But even after its establishment as a national, annual holiday, there were several adjustments to the date itself. Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed the observance date to the fourth Thursday in November in 1939 with the goal of providing shoppers one more weekend before the winter holidays. After some debate and confusion, Roosevelt finally signed a law in 1941 making the fourth Thursday in November the nation’s official Thanksgiving Day.

Similarly, Texas was slow to settle on an official date for Thanksgiving. Sam Houston, President of Republic of Texas, declared March 2nd, Texas’s independence day, as the national day of thanksgiving in 1842, just a few years before Texas was re-annexed to the United States. After rejoining the Union and following other states’ earlier examples, Governor George Wood proclaimed the first Thanksgiving observance in Texas for the first Thursday in December in 1849. In 1944, 1945, 1950, 1951, and 1956 November had five Thursdays, and Texas remained the only state to not change the state observance to coincide with the 1941 law, continuing to observe the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving until the Texas Legislature finally approved a bill in 1957 to make the fourth Thursday in November the state’s official Thanksgiving day to coincide with national observance.

There are records that indicate that there may have been earlier days and feasts of gratitude, both religious and secular, that took place in North America long before the Pilgrims’ first landing. Some historians believe that America’s first thanksgiving took place in the Lone Star state. This is based on historical evidence of a thanksgiving celebration held by Spanish explorer, Juan de Oñate, on April 30, 1598. The Texas House and Senate commemorated this date in 1990, and Governor Rick Perry recognized April 30 as the official day of the First Thanksgiving during his term.

Outside of the colonial lens, celebrations of harvest and thanksgiving have been held across the continent by Native Americans for generations. The holiday represents for many Native Americans a celebration of the event that began centuries of anti-Native legislation and displacement. This is magnified by the predominant narrative of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag’s comradery and the subsequent exclusion of the Wampanoag from the celebration of Thanksgiving over the past four centuries. Today, many Native Americans instead recognize the National Day of Mourning on the fourth Thursday of November by gathering at Cole’s Hill, where a statue of Wampanoag sachem Ousamequin stands over Plymouth Rock. Similarly, Unthanksgiving Day is recognized by an annual gathering on Alcatraz Island to raise awareness about indigenous people’s rights and the colonial occupation of Native lands.

Continue the celebration with these past Ex Libris Juris blog posts: