Thanksgiving Reconsidered: A Brief History of an Early American Tradition

by Maria Hammack 


Sitting at the table with my family this Thanksgiving brought on a conversation about what this holiday was all about.  What were we celebrating?  And what is the history of this annual tradition?  My youngest niece started by saying “I think it’s [Thanksgiving] to celebrate being able to live in this country.” “I think it’s about getting people to be thankful for what they have.  I am thankful that I have a job, and that my parents were never deported” my other niece toasted followed by one of my nephews who said, “I guess I’m thankful that I have a job too and that only one of my parents was deported.” Although we all laughed because memories of that deportation have slowly healed, for my family and friends, who are mostly Mexican immigrants living in North Carolina, the meaning of our Thanksgiving had very little to do with Massachusetts and the Pilgrims and a lot more to do with being grateful for the opportunities this country has afforded all of us, deportations and all.  But our many thanks around the table prompted more questions about Thanksgiving and its history.  As the historian of the family, I proceeded to tell them what I knew about the history of Thanksgiving in the state they call home, North Carolina, and in Texas, where I now live, and about Texas, Florida, and Massachusetts’ claims to the first Thanksgiving ever.

Rarely does any state other than Massachusetts comes to mind during Thanksgiving conversations, but many states have their own Thanksgiving histories.  North Carolina, for instance, did not officially celebrate Thanksgiving until November 15, 1849.  There had been, however, many earlier calls for North Carolina to observe a day of thanksgiving and prayer since the eighteenth century like the 1758 call by Governor Arthur Dobbs to set June 7 as a day of thanksgiving, fasting and prayer.  Its observance, however, was not consistent and varied from year to year.  It was until 1849 when Governor Charles Manly proclaimed that the “State of North Carolina, that the Governor of the State for the time being, be directed to set apart a day in every year, and to give notice thereof, by Proclamation, as a day of solemn and public thanksgiving” that the annual tradition took off across the Tar Heel state.  The official proclamation asked that the state set apart “Thursday the fifteenth Day of November” as North Carolina’s official day of Thanksgiving.[1]

Texas also holds its own when it comes to Thanksgiving history.  Texas has its own several “firsts” including being the first state in the southwest to issue an official recommendation for the observance of Thanksgiving.  From Austin, Texas, and on November 1, 1849, the then Texas governor George T. Wood issued the recommendation to “set apart the first Thursday in December” as a day of thanksgiving.  The following year, on December 1, 1850, the next Texas governor P. Hansbrough Bell issued a proclamation that officially set a day of thanksgiving for the first Thursday in March, starting in 1851.

Texas also claims to have held the “first” ever Thanksgiving celebration in what later because the United States.  According to Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate the first celebration of thanksgiving happened in Texas on April 30, 1598, right after his expedition reached El Paso del Norte, present day El Paso, Texas.  In his account Oñate explained that as he sought a new and shorter route New Spain’s northernmost territory, from Mexico City, his expedition got lost as they reached the Samalayuca Sand Dunes just south El Paso del Norte, an area known as Los Medanos.  After reaching Los Medanos, everyone in the expedition was starving and thirsty.  One of Oñate’s soldiers Gaspar Perez de Villagrá also left his written account on his diary where he detailed how all the soldiers and accompanying men and women (that included free and enslaved Blacks) were all “exhausted, and that their horses were starving and refused to carry more loads.” [2] He added that they ate what they could find including “cactus, berries and weeds, as their food supply dwindled close to nothing.” His account also detailed that the expedition did without water for four days before they were helped by a group of native people who gave them supplies and guided them to their destination.  According to these existing Spanish accounts, the expedition, as soon as they reached El Paso, rested under the cottonwood trees for ten days, they swam in the river and prepared a thanksgiving mass.  They feasted on fish in a celebration ordered by Oñate himself, to thank God and the native guides for helping them survive and making it across the Rio Grande.

But when it comes to the first Thanksgiving, Texas is not the only state that claims a stake in this early American tradition.  Florida is another contender that challenges Massachusetts and Texas as hosts of not one, but two of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in North America.  Huguenot accounts point to French Captain René Goulaine de Laudonnière, founder of Fort Caroline, to have hosted the first ever thanksgiving feast in Florida, on the banks of the Saint Johns river, on June 30, 1564.  This Floridian Thanksgiving happened 56 years before Pilgrims ever made it to Plymouth rock, with over 300 French Huguenots who feasted and sang Thanksgiving psalms alongside groups of Timucuan people whose aid assisted Huguenot survival, on native American land, in Florida.[3]

Florida’s claims to its second “first” thanksgiving dates to September 8, 1565 when Spanish colonizer Pedro Menendez de Aviles took over the already failed colony established by Laudonnière and founded St. Augustine near the same site.  According to Spanish accounts when Pedro Menendez de Aviles and over one hundred colonists landed in Florida, they were greeted by the Timucuan Indians who helped them survive by bringing them food and supplies.  The Spanish soon set up a feast and a mass to celebrate the new settlement which was located near the native village of Seloy.  This first thanksgiving on September 8, 1565 celebrated the safe arrival of the Spanish and the welcoming help giving by many of the same Timucuan people who had welcomed the French a year before.[4]

Throughout the past six centuries Thanksgiving traditions have morphed into the capitalist holiday we have today; a holiday that known to be linked to puritans, natives and turkeys, but seldom prompting reflections on the original gatherings dating to the earliest sixteenth and seventeenth century celebrations.  These early traditions that took place in Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts were meant to celebrate survival, but also the giving of thanks to native people for their assistance in their [European] survival across these early settlements in what later became the United States.  These however, were not celebrations that were often observed, or even annually occurring.  It was not until 1777, when the Continental Congress declared Thanksgiving to be an annual festivity.  It then took twelve more years for George Washington to issue a presidential declaration making Thanksgiving an annual holiday across the United States on October 3, 1789.


These early annual Thanksgiving observances, however, were also not always observed and in fact most completely stopped after 1815.[5] In 1863 Abraham Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation, in the midst of the Civil War, that gave new life to Thanksgiving and resembled the tradition that we now hold each year. In his proclamation, Lincoln invited all his “fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” But this is not the only November Thanksgiving proclamation responsible for the holiday that we observe today. During the Great Depression, Thanksgiving was purposely re-invented to exist as a holiday very much aimed to promote more shopping.  On December 26, 1941 President Roosevelt signed into law what made the fourth Thursday of every November the official and legal holiday of Thanksgiving across the entire United States.[6]


These later Thanksgiving proclamations including those issued across Texas and North Carolina in 1849, and even Roosevelt’s 1941 one, fail to offer any mention or commemoration of Native American people or their assistance, let alone any mention of immigrants being thankful for safe havens, or offering native people any thanks. But on this Thanksgiving week in 2018, as I briefly reviewed the history of thanksgiving alongside my immigrant family, and researched what places hosted the first ever Thanksgivings in what became the United States, my niece’s statement about thanksgiving rang clear and true: Thanksgiving is a feast to celebrate being able to live in this country.  At least it should be, as it should also never be forgotten that no matter what state hosted the first Thanksgiving, be it Massachusetts, Texas, or Florida, the Thanksgiving tradition lies in the fact that foreigners (immigrants) survived and settled in this country thanks to the assistance and welcome of native people and all that they gave, willingly and forced.  From Pedro Menendez de Aviles, to René Goulaine de Laudonnière to Juan de Oñate, and the Pilgrims, their feasts and celebrations were originally intended to give thanks to be able to live and survive in this country –on Native land.  And at those initial gatherings at least, many did gave thanks for the kindness, bounty and assistance that American Native tribes offered them.  This is the message of Thanksgiving that we must heed, lest we forget the foundations, and the people, on which the United States (and its history) stand.


[1]North Carolina Museum of History; North Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

[2]Don Juan de Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595–1628.  Edited by George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953); Gaspar Perez de Villagrá, Historia de la Nueva Mexico, 1610: A Critical and Annotated Spanish-English Edition, translated and Edited by Miguel Encinias, Alfred Rodriguez, and Joseph P. Sanchez (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).

[3] Charles E. Bennett, Laudonnière and Fort Caroline: History and Documents. By Charles E. Bennett (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001).

[4] Michael V. Gannon, The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513-1870 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965).

[5]James W. Baker, Thanksgiving: The Biography of An American Holiday (Durham, New Hampshire: The University of New Hampshire Press, 2009).

[6] “Congress Establishes Thanksgiving,” The National Archives,

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