In Our View: First Thanksgiving?

Debate over initial celebration rages on some four centuries -- or more -- later



Who in the world would argue on Thanksgiving, a holiday designed for expressing gratitude? Why, Americans, of course! Arguing is what we do 24/7, with no break for holidays. So, let us begin.

• The first Thanksgiving was in 1621, when English colonists and the Wampanoag Tribe gathered to celebrate dual blessings: They were still alive and a good harvest had been gathered. This story not only carries a lot of clout along Pilgrims Highway in Plymouth, Mass., lo, these 390 years later, it’s also conventional wisdom. Taught in every elementary school. Totally inarguable, right?

• Well, not exactly. Folks in Virginia tell a different story. They’ll take you back a couple of years earlier, to 1619 when English settlers at Berkeley Plantation established a “day of thanksgiving” in their charter. Many historians agree. Argument settled?

• Then again, other historians claim Thanksgiving was an official ceremony around Jamestown, Va., as early as 1610, a full 11 years before the Pilgrims started hogging the holiday. End of dispute?

• Nope, further research reveals other thanksgiving events occurring at what was known as the Colony of Virginia in 1607. That means any kid born on that particular first Thanksgiving was entering high school the year the Pilgrims staged the so-called first Thanksgiving. So there!

• Whoa, let’s look elsewhere. Who says the East Coast has to be the cradle of every holiday that Europeans have invented in what would become America? Let’s shift the spotlight to the Southwest, where we learn that the first Thanksgiving in America-to-be was celebrated during spring, on April 30, 1598, by Juan de Oñate in today’s San Elizario, Texas.

Who? Where? What?

That’s right, Oñate the explorer on that date led a large Spanish expedition north across the Rio Grande. There, according to one journal entry, they gave thanks for having survived the difficult trek across the Chihuahuan Desert. This happened more than 23 years before the Pilgrims gave thanks.

It could be argued that this is the REAL first Thanksgiving, because people involved in the modern annual re-enactment in El Paso capitalize it as the “First Thanksgiving.” Good marketing strategy. Still, the debate rages on across America. How do we resolve it?

• Don’t look inside the Beltway. Federal politicians aren’t much help. Lincoln historians will argue that the first Thanksgiving — official, anyway — was in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln declared the national holiday. Then again, FDR historians will counter that the first Thanksgiving — as we know it today, at least — was in 1941. That’s when President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress affirmed that the fourth Thursday of November (and not necessarily the last Thursday of the month) would be officially observed as Thanksgiving. (When Thanksgiving falls on the 22nd or the 23rd, it’s the next-to-last Thursday of November).

• The most compelling argument is proffered by the unscientific, impulsive editorial writer. Here goes: Many centuries before Pilgrims gave thanks, an Ice Age nomad wandered south across the 49th Parallel. He was the first immigrant into what would become America. As his GPS chirped “Recalculating,” our friend stopped, looked over his shoulder and muttered, “Boy, I’m sure thankful I outran that mastodon yesterday.”

And THAT was the first Thanksgiving, or as we like to call it, the First Thanksgiving. This momentous event likely occurred in the more temperate environs of our state, so today we officially declare Washington state the unofficial “Home of the First Thanksgiving.”

End of argument, and more seriously: Happy Thanksgiving! The blessings of modern Americans are too numerous to count.