Days of Thanksgiving Celebrated by Our Ancestors

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary searches old newspapers to learn more about Days of Thanksgiving that have been proclaimed throughout American history.

While planning Thanksgiving celebrations, most of us dream of the bountiful feast set upon our tables: turkey, corn, mashed potatoes, pie and all of those other goodies made for the day.

We do this to commemorate the first successful harvest of the Mayflower passengers and the Wampanoag Indians at the Plymouth Plantation in 1621.

Painting: “The First Thanksgiving,” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Painting: “The First Thanksgiving,” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, c. 1912-1915. Credit: U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

That first Thanksgiving celebration lasted three days. The Wampanoags brought five deer as gifts, which were consumed along with other food that has never been documented.

1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation

Much has been written about Thanksgiving, including President George Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation on 3 October 1789, given in response to a request by Congress. Since few have ever read it, I searched GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to find the proclamation as it was printed in the newspapers of that time.

In three paragraphs, President Washington proclaimed “a day of public Thanksgiving and Prayer” to take place on November 26.

article about President George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 14 October 1789article about President George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 14 October 1789

article about President George Washington's 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 14 October 1789

Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 14 October 1789, page 3

First Mention of Thanksgiving in a Newspaper?

I was curious about the first mention of Thanksgiving in a newspaper prior to Washington’s proclamation.

Would you be surprised to learn it occurred in the earliest newspaper to be published in our country: Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestik?

Richard Pierce of Boston had great hopes for this publication, but it was shut down by the authorities after the initial printing on 25 September 1690. Luckily the full copy of this first American newspaper can be found in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

The article reports:

The Christianized Indians in some parts of Plimouth, have newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God for his Mercy in supplying their extream and pinching Necessities under their late want of Corn, & for His giving them now a prospect of a very Comfortable Harvest. Their Example may be worth Mentioning.

article about Indians in Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrating Thanksgiving, Public Occurrences newspaper article 25 September 1690

Public Occurrences (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 September 1690, page 1

Other Thanksgiving Proclamations

Ordinary subjects of Colonial America were not allowed to decide when to set aside a day of Thanksgiving. Magistrates and other leaders – such as Joseph Dudley, Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay – issued proclamations stating the reasons and guidelines for special days of Thanksgiving.

This 1704 Thanksgiving Proclamation was to celebrate “Victory over their Enemies in the Summer past,” referring to England’s victories in the War of the Spanish Succession. In his order declaring 23 November 1704 a “Day of General Thanksgiving throughout this Province,” the governor prohibited “all Servile Labour” on that special day, exhorting everyone:

to Celebrate the Praises of GOD, for all His Benefits and Blessings, And to devote themselves [to] a Thank-Offering to Him in a right Ordered Conversation.

an article about a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 13 November 1704

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 November 1704, page 2

Day of Fasting and Prayer

One of the more intriguing early proclamations is this one, in part concerning captives taken from Deerfield, Massachusetts, in a 1704 raid by French and Native American forces. The attackers killed 44 Deerfield villagers and 12 of their militia defenders, and 112 settlers were taken as captives to Canada.

Since calling for a day of thanks would be inappropriate on this occasion, Governor Dudley called for “a day of Publick FASTING and PRAYER” to appease God in hopes of gaining “Remission of our great and manifold Sins that have justly displeased God” and caused the settlers’ misfortune.

In his proclamation, Governor Dudley expressed hope that the day of fasting and prayer would grant them their most fervent wishes:

The Designs of the barbarous Savages against us defeated; Our exposed Plantations preserved; And the poor Christian Captives in their hands, returned.

article about a proclamation for a Day of Fasting and Prayer, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 5 February 1705

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 February 1705, page 1

Day of Thanksgiving for the Captives’ Return

By the end of 1706, many of the captives had been “redeemed” (recovered by the English, either through paying ransom or via prisoner exchanges). This newspaper report of January 1707 notes:

The People of this County are fill’d with Joy, for the Arrival of the Captives…Wednesday the 8th Currant [i.e., this month] was a Day of Thanksgiving there [Deerfield], to Praise GOD for His great Goodness.

article about a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 20 January 1707

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 January 1707, page 4

I am entirely grateful for the captives’ return, as among them were members of my Belden, Burt and Foote families. Click here to see a list of the Deerfield captives of 1704.

Other Days of Thanksgiving

While contemplating the meaning of Thanksgiving, take the time to explore early newspapers to learn more about the many days of Thanksgiving set aside for our ancestors. Here are two more examples I found.

On 20 September 1704, Governor Dudley once again celebrated English victories in the War of the Spanish Succession by announcing that October 18 would be a day of Thanksgiving because it had:

pleased Almighty God in his Great Goodness to preserve Her Majesties Sacred Person, and to prosper Her Arms in the Just War, wherein Her Majesty and Her Allies are Engaged for the preservation of the Liberties of Europe.

The Governor ordered:

That a General THANKSGIVING to Almighty God, for these His Mercies be Observed throughout this Province, within the several Towns and Districts thereof, on Thursday the Eighteenth Day of October next; and do strictly forbid all Servile Labour thereupon; Exhorting both Ministers and People to Solemnize the said Day after a Religious manner, and to offer up sincere and hearty Praises to GOD.

article about a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 1 October 1705

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 1 October 1705, page 2

In this next example, Governor Dudley on 27 December 1705 called for yet another day of Thanksgiving to celebrate English victories in the War of the Spanish Succession, this one scheduled for January 24.

article about a proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving, Boston News-Letter newspaper article 31 December 1705

Boston News-Letter (Boston, Massachusetts), 31 December 1705, page 4

Why not take a little time during this Thanksgiving break to search the old newspapers in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives to learn more about early Thanksgiving celebrations and enrich your understanding of this very special day of thanks?

Happy Thanksgiving and blessings to you and your families!

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Light a Candle for Thanksgiving

Plymouth, England, and Plymouth, Massachusetts, are already beginning celebrations (which will culminate in 2020) for the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower, with special events on both sides of the Atlantic.

“As one small candle may light a thousand,
so the light here kindled has shown unto many
–Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford

photo of an "Illuminate and Thanksgiving" poster


Thousands are expected to parade through Plymouth, England, this year carrying candles and lanterns as they gather at the Mayflower steps there in the harbor where the original ship left for America in 1620.

photo of candles lit on a wharf

Source: Baylor University

Are you planning to light a candle and join in the Thanksgiving commemoration this year?

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Mayflower Genealogy: Finding Your Cousins Using Newspapers

Searching through GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives recently, I found this old newspaper announcement for Margaret (Rogers) Smith’s 81st birthday.

obituary for Margaret (Rogers) Smith, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 23 January 1938

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 23 January 1938, page 12

Margaret Anne (Rogers) Smith (1857-1943) didn’t come to America on the Mayflower ship – but according to this newspaper article her ancestor Thomas Rogers (c. 1572-Winter 1620/21) did.

Hey – I am also descended from Mayflower Pilgrim Thomas Rogers.
That makes Margaret my cousin.
What more can I learn about her?

Could it be this easy to find my Mayflower cousins?
Yes – it is.

This historical newspaper article is packed with genealogical clues and information about Margaret, her siblings and children. That would make all of them my cousins too. Armed with these clues I then need to verify and prove each member of the family as I go back generation by generation to our common ancestor: Pilgrim Thomas Rogers.

For starters, the newspaper article gives me Margaret’s photo and tells me that she “celebrated her eighty-first birthday this week at her home at Prosper [Colin County, Texas].”

Wow – her photo. A great find. Nice smile.
So, she was 81 years old in January 1938 and living in Prosper, Colin County, Texas.
That should be easy to verify.

Here is a copy of her death certificate.

death certificate for Margaret (Rogers) Smith

Source: FamilySearch, “Texas, Deaths, 1890-1976,” database with images, FamilySearch ( accessed 3 September 2015), Death certificates > 1943 > Vol 073-079, certificates 036001-039400, Aug, Brazoria-Starr counties > image 314 of 3524; State Registrar Office, Austin.

Good, her death certificate shows that she was still living in Prosper, Texas, when she died, and it gives me her date of birth as 18 January 1857, in Colin County, Texas. Hmm… January 1857 – that was just 11 years after Texas became a state.

The old newspaper clipping also says her grandparents “were among the first settlers in this community.”

Another great genealogy clue.
So it looks like multiple generations of the family had moved from Tennessee to Texas.

The old newspaper article continues giving me the names of her surviving brothers, sisters and children. Perfect. Historical newspapers sure make it easy to research and fill in the entire family tree of my Mayflower ancestors.

My next step is to look at the records available in other newspapers in GenealogyBank, FamilySearch and other sources to verify each member of the family going back generation by generation.

Sometimes you actually can work your family tree from the top down – and in a case like this where the ancestral connection is in the surname line, you can work on your tree from the bottom up. As ever: Trust, but verify and confirm that she is in fact a descendant of Thomas Rogers of the Mayflower.

Genealogy Tip: Researching your Mayflower family lines? Use the old newspapers to find those who are self-identified as descendants of the same Pilgrim ancestors you are. Then link them back, generation by generation, to attach them to your extended Mayflower family tree.

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Full List of Mayflower Passengers in Gov. Bradford’s Newly-Restored Journal

Governor William Bradford’s (ca. 1590-1657) handwritten Of Plymouth Plantation is well known to genealogists as the earliest journal history of the Mayflower passengers, their voyage across the Atlantic, and the settlement in Plymouth Plantation.

According to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), the Bradford Manuscript contains 580 pages, is hand sewn, “and bound in a parchment-covered binding.” It is housed in the State Library of Massachusetts.

photo of the Bradford Manuscript being restored by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC)

Photo: the Bradford Manuscript. Source: Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC).

Click here to read the State Library’s guide to the Bradford Manuscript.

The Northeast Document Conservation Center took on the task of conserving, repairing and restoring this historic manuscript. The NEDCC has now put a detailed article about the conservation process for this important document online.

Click here to read the NEDCC’s account of their work on the Bradford Manuscript.

screenshot of a page from the Northeast Document Conservation Center website describing the restoration of the Bradford Manuscript

Source: Northeast Document Conservation Center

The conservation work was done to prevent further deterioration of the historical journal, and to make it more accessible to the public by the creation of two facsimile volumes.

A digitized version of the Bradford Manuscript is available online.

Of special interest to genealogists, the Bradford Manuscript contains a multipage list of the passengers on the Mayflower.

photo of a page from the Bradford Manuscript showing the list of Mayflower passengers

Photo: Bradford Manuscript page showing the list of Mayflower passengers. Source: State Library of Massachusetts.

Having this invaluable historical Mayflower resource protected – and having a digital copy of the manuscript online – is a great benefit to genealogists.

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Are You a Descendant of Mayflower Pilgrim John Alden?

The Rev. Bailey Loring (1786-1860) was a descendant of John Alden, who was a crew member on the Mayflower and one of the original settlers of Plymouth Colony. Rev. Loring’s mother was Alethea (Alden) Loring (1744-1820), and her great-grandfather was John Alden, who married Priscilla Mullins.

Family stories and ancestral connections were reported in old newspapers, and GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives are essential for getting the stories of your family history. For example, here is Rev. Bailey Loring’s obituary, which states he is a direct descendant of John Alden.

obituary for Rev. Bailey Loring, Boston Recorder newspaper article 10 May 1860

Boston Recorder (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 May 1860, page 75

A “Shout Out” to the Alden Kindred of America, one of my all-time favorite genealogical organizations and websites: FYI—you’ll want to link this obituary and citation to your website. The “Alden Kindred” is a lineage society open to all descendants of John and Priscilla (Mullins) Alden and those interested in the work of the society.

Are you a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden? Tell us about your familial connection in the comments section.

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Man Overboard! Mayflower Pilgrim John Howland’s Story

Did you know that Mayflower Pilgrim John Howland almost didn’t make it to America?

article about Pilgrim John Howland being swept overboard from the Mayflower, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 21 May 1897

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 21 May 1897, page 10

This old newspaper article reports his narrow escape:

…with a roll of ye ship [John Howland was] throwne into the sea, but it pleased God that he caught hould of the topsail halliards, which hunge overboard and ran out of length; yet he held his hould (though he was sundry fathoms under water) till he was held up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat hooke and other means got into the ship again and his life saved.

There is a painting by Mike Haywood – “Pilgrim Overboard” – that commemorates this event.

It is a good thing that John Howland was rescued from the sea—not only for his sake—but because he has more living descendants today than any other Mayflower passenger.

Wow – I didn’t know about his near-drowning.

There are so many of our old family stories that simply have not been passed down to us today. Rediscover your family’s stories in GenealogyBank’s more than three centuries of historical newspaper archives.

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Scary Mayflower Fact: Storm Cracked Ship’s Main Beam

I didn’t realize that the Mayflower had such a difficult time when the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic in 1620.

article about the Mayflower, Boston Herald newspaper article 25 November 1970

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 25 November 1970, page 26

A long voyage—yes, I knew that.
The ship got off course—yes, I knew that too.

But multiple severe storms, including one that cracked and buckled the Mayflower’s main beam? No, I didn’t remember that part of the story.

Luckily the Pilgrims had brought along nails, screws and other items for building homes in the New World, and were able to use a “great iron scrue” to “force the beam back into place.”

Think of the main beam of a house. The main beam at the midpoint of a ship—“amidships” —is the key beam holding the ship together. This was serious ship damage.

That is a great true story.

You want to know about these ancestral stories—find them, save them and pass them down in the family. You’ll find them in the old, deep GenealogyBank Historical Newspaper Archives.

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New Discovery about Mayflower Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins

Did you know Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins vacationed in Bermuda before he came over on the Mayflower? I didn’t know that!

Original Mayflower Voyager (Stephen Hopkins) Previously Shipwrecked at St. George's, Bermuda, Boston Herald newspaper article 16 June 1957

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 June 1957, page 61

Well, it wasn’t exactly a vacation—but Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins lived on the island of Bermuda for over a year, from 1609 to 1610.

Eleven years before he left England headed for America in 1620 on board the Mayflower, Hopkins left 2 June 1609 on the ship Sea Venture headed for Jamestown with supplies and a new governor for the colony. The Sea Venture hit a storm on 24 July 1609 and was shipwrecked off of Bermuda. Hopkins and others on board survived and remained for over a year on Bermuda while building a new seaworthy boat that they could use to complete their trip to Jamestown. Soon after he arrived in Jamestown, the colony was evacuated back to England.

Key Skills Learned, Critical for the Mayflower Voyage

Stephen Hopkins picked up critical skills and experience on that ill-fated 1609 voyage. He was one of the few Mayflower Pilgrims with experience at sea. He had survived a shipwreck, and knew what it took to be resourceful in extreme conditions in order to build a seaworthy ship to continue the voyage to America.

Perhaps the most critical skill he learned in 1609-1610 was to speak multiple Native American languages. He gained invaluable experience in getting to know and work with Native Americans. This experience would be pivotal 10 years later when the Pilgrims worked with Squanto and the local Native Americans in Plymouth Colony.

Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins liked his experience in Bermuda and Jamestown so much that he really wanted to go back to America.

So in 1620 he left along with 130 +/- other passengers and crew on the Mayflower to make the 66-day trip to America. It is estimated that today there are as many as 30 million Americans who are Mayflower descendants, although most are unaware of their ancestral tie to the founding of the country.

No Historical Coincidence?

They say there are no accidents or coincidences in life—that somehow seeming coincidences actually were critical to the way history turned out. One of those fortuitous coincidences was that Squanto and other members of his tribe were brought to England where they were trained in English to become interpreters. His language skills and life experience in England were critical to the success of the Pilgrim Colony, and helped frame the 50 years that followed of relative peace between the colonists and the Native Americans. Not many people have such a critical impact on the life and history of other people during their own lifetimes, let alone an impact that we revere to this day.

Newspapers Contain Our Long-Lost Family Stories

You can learn so much about your family in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Historical newspapers contain the stories and details of the lives of every one of our ancestors, many of them lost for generations.

Dig in and find your family’s stories—don’t let them remain lost to the family.

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Mayflower Pilgrim Thomas Rogers: Are You a Descendant?

Joseph Atwood Ordway (1852-1904) is a descendant of Mayflower passenger Thomas Rogers—and he thought so much of that genealogical fact, it was included in his obituary.

Death of Joseph A. Ordway, Springfield Republican newspaper article 6 May 1904

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 6 May 1904, page 12

This is a detailed obituary that gives us a lot of family history information about Joseph:

  • His date and place of birth: 12 May 1852 in Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
  • His date and place of death: 5 May 1904 in Springfield, Hampden, Massachusetts, United States
  • One of his brothers was “the late” General Albert Ordway (1843-1897) who served in the Civil War.
  • He was survived by his wife: Carrie L. Ordway
  • He had two sisters: Mary Emma Ordway (1849- ) and Annie Freeman Ordway (1857- ) who became Mrs. Charles E. Folsom (Charles Edward Folsom, Jr., 1855-1926)
  • He had one surviving brother: Frank Foster Ordway (1862- )

Obituaries give good core research information for genealogists.

I particularly like that Joseph’s obituary mentioned he was a Mayflower descendant. I am also a descendant of the Pilgrim Thomas Rogers.

Knowing that enables me to start with Joseph Atwood Ordway and trace his lineage back to his Mayflower ancestor.

This is a quick way to speed up your genealogy research and ensure that all of your cousins are found and documented in the family history.

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Mayflower Heritage: Jack Howland Loved His!

Take pride in your Mayflowerheritage—just like Jack Howland did.

painting: “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor” by William Halsall, 1882

Painting: “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor” by William Halsall, 1882. Source: Pilgrim Hall Museum; Wikimedia Commons.

According to Howland’s obituary:

His Mayflower heritage was something that he was immensely proud of. He served as historian and archivist for the Pilgrim John Howland Society for many years. This role allowed him to communicate with fellow descendants from across the country and around the world. Jack was also captain of the Maine Mayflower Society. Annual trips to Plymouth were something that he always enjoyed.

His Mayflower heritage was such a part of him that after high school, when he joined the Navy, he served on the USS Plymouth Rock (LSD-29).

photo of the USS Plymouth Rock underway, 8 April 1963

Photo: USS Plymouth Rock underway, 8 April 1963. Source: Wikipedia.

His obituary went on to say that:

He took particular pleasure in recreating the journey of his ancestor, John Howland, back to Plymouth in 2003 aboard the shallop Elizabeth Tilley. In 2010 he was awarded the Lura Sellew Medal, the highest honor that the Pilgrim John Howland Society bestows for service to the organization and the memory of the pilgrim John Howland.

The Pilgrim John Howland Society is an organization of descendants of John and Elizabeth (Tilley) Howland who were passengers on the Mayflower.

Enter Last Name

Remarkably, the home that John and Elizabeth (Tilley) Howland lived in during their old age is still standing. It was the home of their son, Jabez Howland.

photo of the Jabez Howland House in Plymouth, Massachusetts

Photo: Jabez Howland House in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Source: Swampyank;Wikimedia Commons.

According to Wikipedia they both lived in this home:

…after their own house burned. John Howland died in 1674 and Elizabeth lived there until the house was sold in 1680 and Jabez Howland moved to Rhode Island. Elizabeth moved to the home of her daughter, Lydia (Howland) Browne, in Swansea, where she died in 1687.

Take the time to research and document all of the descendants of your Mayflower ancestors.

Search out and read their stories and share them.

You can read Jack’s obituary in the Eagle Tribune (Lawrence, Massachusetts) 2 November 2011.

obituary for Jack Howland, Eagle Tribune newspaper article 2 November 2011

Eagle Tribune (Lawrence, Massachusetts), 2 November 2011

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