History of Thanksgiving: A Timeline

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The history of Thanksgiving is a little more complex than the history of some of the other American holidays. The celebration that we typically think of was in Plymouth Massachusetts. That was the celebration with the Pilgrims and the Indians, and it took place in 1621, but there were other Thanksgiving celebrations before that. After that party at Plymouth, it took a while to establish the holiday, as we know it. In fact, it wasn’t until 1941 that President Roosevelt established the holiday on the fourth Thursday of November. This timeline follows Thanksgiving from the first Thanksgivings to the present.

1610–Most historians agree that the first real Thanksgiving was a prayer service and dedication that took place in the spring of 1610 near Jamestown, Virginia. The harsh winter had killed about 430 of the 490 settlers in that community. The settlers were starving to death and the English ships finally arrived with supplies and food. That meant life to the settlers and they gave thanks.

1619–Another “first” Thanksgiving day was celebrated on December 4, 1619. This was a dedication of thanks made on the banks of the James River in Virginia. The settlers that arrived there had made an agreement with the proprietor of their ship that on the day of the ship’s arrival in the new world they would hold a ceremony of thanksgiving. They promised to keep the date as a day of thanksgiving and that date is still celebrated by people in that area to this day.

1621–This is the “first” Thanksgiving that comes to mind when we celebrate Thanksgiving today. The 1621 Thanksgiving was a three-day feast and celebration that the Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony held. They had the celebration to celebrate their first harvest and to thank the local Powhatan Indians that had helped them to survive. This celebration was not held the following year as the next harvest wasn’t nearly as good. The year after that (1623) there was a terrible drought, and the Pilgrims prayed for rain. They celebrated another day of Thanksgiving after the rains came, but it was more a day of prayer than a day of parties.

1630–Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay colony observed an official day of prayer and thanksgiving on July 7th 1630 but that didn’t really catch on as a holiday.

1789–On October 3, 1789 George Washington proclaimed November 26th to be a national day of thanksgiving. However, Thanksgiving failed to become an annual tradition. Nearly every president after that tried to declare a national day of thanks.

1863–Finally a proclamation of thanksgiving stuck. President Lincoln, having been lobbied by journalist Sarah Joseph Hale, declared the last Thursday of Thanksgiving to be set aside as a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise”. Lincoln ordered the government departments to close for the holiday. From that year on, Thanksgiving has been celebrated by the nation in November.

1876–This was the first year that the college football championship was held on Thanksgiving Day. This tradition evolved into one of today’s honored traditions of watching football on Thanksgiving.

1924–On Thanksgiving Day, 1924, Macy’s department store sponsored the first ever Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. In 1927, giant balloons were added to the parade, and Thanksgiving began to look much more like our Thanksgivings of today.

1941–President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving to be held on the fourth Thursday of November. In the years between 1863 and 1941 Thanksgiving was held on the last Thursday, which was sometimes the fourth, and sometimes the fifth Thursday. Thanksgiving has been the fourth Thursday in November ever since.



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