A historical marker in downtown York, Pennsylvania declares it the site of “The First National Thanksgiving”.
So does that mean everything you learned about the Pilgrims was a lie?!
Certainly not – for more than 150 years prior to the York proclamation, days of thanksgiving were celebrated by individual settlements and colonies in America, to commemorate a successful harvest, an end to a drought, or the signing of a treaty.
And it wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of every November as the official U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving.
So where does York, PA fit into the story of Thanksgiving in America?
The York Thanksgiving Proclamation
For nine months in 1777-78, York was essentially the Capital of the fledgling United States of America.
With the British Army in control of Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress had fled to the relative safety of the York, on the west side of the Susquehanna River.
On October 31, 1777, news reached York that General Horatio Gates and the Continental Army had scored a major victory over the British at the Battle of Saratoga in New York.
The next day, Samuel Adams wrote and the Continental Congress proclaimed that December 18, 1777 would be a day of “public thanksgiving”, in honor of this great victory.
Samuel Adams, known as the “Father of the Revolution”, was one of a number of politicians and Generals of the time who were dissatisfied with how General George Washington was handling the war.
In fact, some of them openly sought to replace Washington with General Gates, and this collection disgruntled politicians and Generals came to be known as the “Conway Cabal”, named after General Thomas Conway, one of Washington’s loudest critics from within the Continental Army.
There are some historians that speculate that Samuel Adam’s push to declare this National Day of Thanksgiving was really an effort to boost the public’s perception of General Gates, paving the way to push General Washington out and replace him with Gates.
Ultimately the efforts of the “Conway Cabal” collapsed, in large part due to French-born General Marquis de Lafayette convincing the Continental Congress that France considered General Washington and the cause of American independence inseparable.
Even the politicians who disapproved of General Washington’s performance realized that without the aid of France, the American Revolution was doomed, so Washington kept his job and the rest, as they say, is history!
York Is Not The Birthplace of Thanksgiving
So as you can see, the “First National Thanksgiving” proclaimed in York in 1777 WAS NOT the precursor to the modern Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate on the last Thursday of November.
In fact, it MAY have been part of a plan to subvert the man who ultimately would become known as the “Father of Our Country”!
But the York thanksgiving proclamation of 1777 is an interesting footnote in American history, especially when you consider all the behind-the-scenes wrangling for power that may have played a part in its pronouncement, a tradition that CERTAINLY continues in America to this very day!
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