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Thanksgiving Timeline

Early America

The first Americans had many traditions of gratitude, especially the Seneca Indian liturgy of thanksgiving. Settlers and colonists from every continent brought customs of days of prayer and thanksgiving, especially in New England.

1621 -- Pilgrims' Feast

Near Plymouth, Mass., the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with a feast, often referred to as the first Thanksgiving. But it was never repeated, so it didn't actually begin the tradition. In fact, to these devoutly religious people, a day of thanksgiving likely would've included prayer and fasting.

1630 -- The First Thanksgiving of the Massachusetts Bay Colony

On July 8, the colony celebrated Thanksgiving Day in gratitude of the safe arrival of John Winthrop's ships from England after a difficult and stormy passage. Governor Winthrop recorded: "We kept a daye of thanksgivinge in all the plantations."

1776 -- Valley Forge, the First Thanksgiving

On the day Congress had appointed, George Washington and his troops, moving close to Valley Forge, deliberately stopped in bitter weather in the open fields to celebrate the first Thanksgiving. As one early surgeon put it, "Mankind is never truly thankful for the benefits of life, until they have experienced the want of them." Two hundred years later at Valley Forge, the National Thanksgiving Commission was instituted in the George Washington Chapel. As the nation's first president, George Washington, a few months after his inauguration, issued "Presidential Proclamation Number One," his Thanksgiving. He voiced his personal conviction that "it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God."

1777 -- The Colonies Give Thanks

The Thirteen Colonies celebrated a day of thanksgiving commemorating the victory over the British at Saratoga, but, again, it did not establish a tradition. It was only a one-time occasion.

1789 -- Washington's Thanksgiving Declaration

George Washington declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday, but dissention between the colonies prevented it from becoming a reality. Even the individual states couldn't institute the holiday at that time because communities celebrated harvest festivals in different ways and at different times.

1817 -- States Begin Adopting Tradition

New York State adopted Thanksgiving Day as an annual custom.

1827 -- The One-Woman Crusade

Sarah Josepha Hale begins a one-woman crusade to have Thanksgiving celebrated nationwide as a holiday. As editor of Godey's Ladies' Book and Ladies' Magazine, she used these publications as platforms for crusade.

1846 -- Hale Continues Her Work

Hale began to petition the governors of the states & territories to establish a common day in which to celebrate thanksgiving.

1852 -- States Finally Cooperate

Hale announced in an editorial in Godey's Ladies' Book that 29 states (all except Virginia & Vermont) and all the territories were to celebrate Thanksgiving on the same day.

1863 -- Lincoln's Thanksgiving Proclamation

On Oct. 3, President Lincoln, after being urged by Hale, issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday in November as the day of national Thanksgiving. Lincoln restored the neglected presidential proclamations of prayer and thanksgiving during the Civil War. "Intoxicated with unbroken success," he wrote, "we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and reserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us." Lincoln issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation in many years; since then every president has issued at least one per year. No president since Lincoln has forgotten Thanksgiving to God each year, weaving a picture of our most beloved tradition.

1939 -- Roosevelt Makes A Change

Franklin Roosevelt changed the day of celebration to the third Thursday of November after store merchants petitioned the president. The new date would allow more shopping days between Thanksgiving & Christmas. Many Americans were outraged at the change and continued to celebrate on the 4th Thursday in protest.

1941 -- Roosevelt Acknowledges His Mistake

In the spring, Roosevelt admitted that the day change had been a mistake and he shifted the holiday back to its original day.

1976 -- Tradition Finds a Home

During the 200th birthday year of America, the Chapel of Thanksgiving was consecrated. President Ford referred to it as "a major national shrine," and later President George Bush noted that it is "a symbol and a home for America's most beloved tradition."


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