York, PA and the First National Thanksgiving

York PA and the first National Thanksgiving Day.

A historical marker in downtown York, Pennsylvania declares it the site of “The First National Thanksgiving”.

The First National Thanksgiving plaque across the street from the York County Administrative Center.
The First National Thanksgiving plaque across the street from the York County Administrative Center.

So does that mean everything you learned about the Pilgrims was a lie?!

An artist's stylized rendition of the first Thanksgiving feast celebrated by Europeans in the New World.
An artist’s stylized rendition of the first Thanksgiving feast celebrated by the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 (public domain image).

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.

A stylized depiction of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1621.
A stylized depiction of the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1621 (public domain image).

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.

President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November 1863 as a national day of Thanksgiving.
President Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday of November 1863 as a national day of Thanksgiving, an expression of gratitude for a pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg earlier that year (public domain image).

So where does York, PA fit into the story of Thanksgiving in America?

York County was established in 1749 and was Pennsylvania's fifth county.
York County was established in 1749 and was Pennsylvania’s fifth county.

The York Thanksgiving Proclamation

For nine months in 1777-78, York was essentially the Capital of the fledgling United States of America.

York Pennsylvania served as the Capital of the Nation for 9 months during the American Revolution.
York served as the Capital of the United States for nine months during the American Revolution.

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.

A historical marker where the Provincial Courthouse of York once stood.
A historical marker where the Provincial Courthouse of York once stood.

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.

Illustration depicting General Horatio Gates at the York County History Center.
Illustration depicting General Horatio Gates at the York County History Center.

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.

The First National Thanksgiving was proclaimed in York Pennsylvania by the Second Continental Congress on November 1. 1777.
The First National Thanksgiving was proclaimed in York by the Second Continental Congress on November 1. 1777.

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.

George Washington exhibit at he Valley Forge Visitor Center.
George Washington exhibit at he Valley Forge Visitor Center.

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.

General Horatio Gates spent several months living in York Pennsylvania during the American Revolution.
General Horatio Gates spent several months living in York after his victory at the Battle of Saratoga.

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.

A reproduction of the original Colonial Courthouse where the Second Continental Congress met while based in York Pennsylvania.
A reproduction of the original Colonial Courthouse where the National Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777.

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.

A sculpture depicting General Lafayette raising a toast in support of General George Washington and putting an end to the Conway Cabal.
A sculpture in downtown York depicting General Lafayette raising a toast in support of General George Washington and putting an end to the Conway Cabal.

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!

Mural depicting General George Washington at the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.
Mural depicting General George Washington marching through Philadelphia.

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.

Vintage Thanksgiving greeting card.
Vintage Thanksgiving greeting card (public domain image).

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”!

Portrait of George Washington at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia Pennsylvania.
Portrait of George Washington at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

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!

A mural depicting the Articles of Confederation being adopted by the Continental Congress meeting in York on November 15, 1777.
A mural depicting the Articles of Confederation being adopted by the Continental Congress meeting in York on November 15, 1777.

Did you enjoy this article?

If so, be sure to like and follow PA Bucket List on Facebook, Instagram, and/or Pinterest to learn more about the best things to see and do in Pennsylvania!

Click on any of the icons below to get connected to PA Bucket List on social media.


PA Bucket List 2022 Sasquatch Logo

Pennsylvania’s Best Travel Blog!

Rusty Glessner is a professional photographer, lifelong Pennsylvanian, and creator of the PA Bucket List travel blog.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here