The Capital Region: Birthplace of the First Official Thanksgiving
We know what you’re thinking: Didn’t Thanksgiving originate way back in 1621 when the pilgrims and the Native Americans broke bread to celebrate the year’s bountiful harvest? You’re not wrong—that did happen and Thanksgiving-like celebrations were annual customs throughout New England in the 17th and 18th centuries. But the headline to this story isn’t wrong either—the first official Thanksgiving (emphasis on the word “official”) did indeed come out of events that transpired right here in Upstate New York, circa 1777.
In the fall of ’77, the American Revolution was in full swing, with the Continental Army at a slight disadvantage after a failed Canadian invasion (also known as the Battle of Quebec). But in order to dissuade potential American allies such as France from joining the fight, the British forces needed to take control of Upstate New York and the Hudson River—land the Americans possessed. Three British armies merged in Albany in the spring of that year, but only one made the final push to its final destination: Saratoga.
Upon arriving in Saratoga (present day Schuylerville), that army, led by General John Burgoyne, was met by the Northern Department of the Continental Army, which was commanded by General Horatio Gates. On September 19 at Loyalist John Freeman’s farm, a battle ensued, with the British suffering twice the number of casualties as the Americans. No winner was decided in that fight, though, and Burgoyne kept his army nearby to wait for backup from New York City. Running out of supplies and realizing he couldn’t afford to wait for more troops, Burgoyne sent a reconnaissance force to attack the Americans at Bemis Heights, just south of the site of the first battle. The Americans knew they were coming, though, and forced the British to retreat. Thanks to heavy rain and cold temperatures, Burgoyne’s retreat was slowed, allowing the Americans to surround his troops. Burgoyne officially surrendered his army on October 17 in what came to be known as the Battle of Bemis Heights, or the Second Battle of Saratoga.
Later that year, to celebrate that very Patriot victory at Saratoga, the Continental Congress issued a proclamation written by Sam Adams advocating for “one day of public Thanksgiving…that at one time and with one voice, the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts.” Consequently, the colonies celebrated the first national Thanksgiving on December 18, 1777.
The following year, President George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26 as a day to give thanks for the American Constitution, but it would be nearly another century before President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November a true national holiday. By that point Thanksgiving had become about much more than one military victory (regardless of the fact that it was the turning point of the American Revolution). But here in the Capital Region, we still remember the real reason for the very first official Thanksgiving.
(Pictured above: Detail from John Trumbull's painting “The Surrender of General Burgoyne” at Saratoga, which currently resides in the U.S. Capitol.)