The First National Thanksgiving Proclaimed in York November 1, 1777
First National Thanksgiving Marker, East Market Street, York
Have you passed by the marker above, tucked into a mini-park in downtown York, PA, and wondered about the story behind it?
The marker reads: “THE FIRST NATIONAL THANKSGIVING WAS PROCLAIMED FROM YORK BY THE CONTINENTAL CONGRESS ON NOVEMBER 1, 1777 TO BE CELEBRATED ON THURSDAY, DECEMBER 18. IT WAS WRITTEN BY SAM ADAMS OF MASSACHUSETTS, ‘THE FATHER OF THE REVOLUTION,’ WHO ADVOCATED FOR THE FIRST TIME ‘ONE PUBLIC DAY OF THANKSGIVING’ FOR ALL OF THE STATES AFTER THE BATTLE OF SARATOGA ‘THAT WITH ONE HEART AND ONE VOICE THE GOOD PEOPLE MAY EXPRESS THE GRATEFUL FEELINGS OF THEIR HEARTS.’ BY VARIOUS HISTORICAL AND PATRIOTIC SOCIETIES AND THE NATIONAL THANKSGIVING FOUNDATION.”
Thanksgiving was not a new concept. We all know the story of the Plymouth settlers and their Indian friends, which has been told and retold and embellished over the years. The American colonists were, for the most part, a religious people, following the faith, be it Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, that their ancestors had followed in Europe. As we all know, offering thanks is an integral part of our religious heritage. Continental Congress had asked for a day of prayer and fasting in 1775, but that was as colonists, before the Declaration of Independence.
This was different–we had declared our independence to the entire world over a year before, and now, for the first time as an independent nation, the leaders of our new country were declaring a national day of Thanksgiving–indeed, the First National Day of Thanksgiving.
Read my recent York Sunday News column below to find out why Congress felt, in these days of trial, the need to give thanks and what the proclamation said.
First National Thanksgiving Proclaimed in York in 1777
It was October 1777. We were deeply involved in our war for independence. The Second Continental Congress had lately fled Philadelphia in the face of British occupation to regroup here in the York County courthouse.
Congressmen spent their days hammering out the details of Articles that would soon frame a formal Confederation of the 13 states, a necessary step for recognition and assistance from other nations. They were struggling with the logistics of supplying the soldiers with much needed clothing, food, arms, and medicine. The troops under Commander in Chief George Washington had recently been defeated at Brandywine and also been unsuccessful at Germantown. The oncoming winter added to the bleak outlook.
Then reports started to trickle in of a victory by the northern division of the army, under General Horatio Gates. On October 26th Samuel Adams wrote from York to James Warren: “We have just now received a satisfactory Account of the great Success of our Arms on the 14th Inst. under General Gates. The Express is expected every Hour…. Congress will, I suppose, recommend the setting apart one Day of publick Thanksgiving to be observed throughout the united States.”
On October 31st the official dispatches from General Gates arrived, confirming that on October 17th British General John Burgoyne had surrendered his entire army to Gates near Saratoga, New York.
Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and Daniel Roberdeau were instructed to “prepare a recommendation to the several states, to set apart a day of thanksgiving, for the signal success, lately obtained over the enemies of these United States.”
The next day the Thanksgiving committee report was presented and agreed to by Congress. It read, in part: “In CONGRESS, NOVEMBER 1, 1777, Forasmuch as it is the indispensable duty of all men to adore the superintending providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with gratitude their obligations to HIM for benefits received…. And it having pleased him in his abundant mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable bounties of his common providence; but also to smile upon us, in the prosecution of a just and necessary war for the defence and establishment of our unalienable rights and liberties: Particularly in that he hath been pleased in so great a measure, to prosper the means used for the support of our troops, and to crown our arms with most signal success:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth day of December next for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE: That at one time and with one voice, the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their DIVINE BENEFACTOR…. That it may please him graciously to afford his blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the PUBLIC COUNCIL of the whole. To inspire our commanders both by land and sea, and all under them…under the providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE. That it may please him, to prosper the trade and manufactures of the people, and the labour of the husbandman…. To take schools and seminaries of education, so necessary for cultivating the principles of true liberty, virtue and piety, under his nurturing hand: and to prosper the means of religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consisteth “IN RIGHTEOUSNESS, PEACE AND JOY IN THE HOLY GHOST.
And it is further recommended, that service, labour, and such recreation as, though at other times innocent…may be omitted on so solemn an occasion.”
Laurens dispatched a letter, enclosing the proclamation, to each of the thirteen states, reading: “The Arms of the United States of America haveing been blessed in the present Campaign with remarkable Success, Congress have Resolved to recommend that one day, Thursday, the 18th December next, be Set apart to be observed by all Inhabitants throughout these States for a General thanksgiving to Almighty God. And I have it in command to transmit to you the inclosed extract from the minutes of Congress for that purpose.
Your excellency or Honour will be pleased to take the necessary measures for carrying the Resolve into effect in the State in which you preside.”
On December 17th Washington issued a general order to his cold, hungry men camped at Gulph that they would settle in for the winter six miles west at Valley Forge. He also observed that: “Tomorrow being the day set apart by the Honorable Congress for public Thanksgiving and Praise; and duty calling us devoutly to express our grateful acknowledgements to God for the manifold blessings he has granted us, the General directs that the army remain in it’s present quarters, and that the Chaplains perform divine service with their several Corps and brigades. And earnestly exhorts, all officers and soldiers, whose absence is not indispensably necessary, to attend with reverence the solemnities of the day.”
Several more months of cold and hunger were ahead for Washington’s army. Several years of war were ahead for the United States. Trials and hard decisions were ahead for members of Congress. Despite the gloom, suffering, and fear of the unknown, that first national Thanksgiving was observed. There was now a glimmer of hope that this new nation would endure.
The published Journals of Congress and Letters of Congress do not give much evidence of how that Thanksgiving was observed by Congress. The delegates did meet on the appointed day, the 18th of December. The Journal minutes seem to start with the three o’clock session instead of the usual 10 a.m. session, so perhaps they did take the morning off, as they had advised, for solemnly offering their gratitude that, finally, the tide seemed to be turning in their favor.
Click here for more on the 1777 Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Click on the links below for more on Continental Congress in York.
Congress comes to York.
National Lottery drawn in York.