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The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The painting shows common misconceptions about the event that persist to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear such outfits, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Plains Indians

It has become common knowledge that the first Thanksgiving in North America was held by Martin Frobisher and his crew in the eastern Arctic in 1578.

Sir Martin Frobisher (b near Wakefield, Eng 1539; d  at Plymouth, Eng 22 Nov 1594).

Sir Martin Frobisher, a mariner, explorer and “chaser of fool’s gold” made three trips to the Arctic looking for a route to India. Jacques Cartier had embarked on such a mission making two trips to what is now the East Coast of Canada. The first of these trips took place in 1534. He then claimed the territory he had reached for France by planting a ten-meter cross in the Gaspé area feeling he had discovered an Asian Land. He kidnapped Taignoagny and dom Agaya, the two sons of Iroquois chief Donnacona and took them to France. In 1535, he made a second trip returning his sons to Donnacona.

Frobisher & a Stormy Arctic Sea

As for Sir Martin Frobisher, hoping to find a northwest passage to India, he traveled to inauspicious destinations.[i] In 1578, he commanded a flotilla of 15 ships and more than 400 men. However, a storm threatened the entire flotilla. One ship returned to Europe and another was sunk by ice. Yet, Frobisher was undeterred.

Frobisher and his men, the thirteen ships that remained, were then at the northern entrance to the Hudson Strait, the sea to the north discovered by land, from the south, by Pierre-Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart Des Groseillers, a sea that permitted easy access to beaver pelts.[ii]

The thirteen remaining ships assembled at the Countess of Warwick’s Island, known today as Kodlunarn Island, 500 miles (800 kilometers) off the northeastern shore of Frobisher Bay, a relatively large inlet of the Labrador Sea. Frobisher’s men established two mines on the island and tested the ore spending a month battling storms for most of July.[iii]

Sir Martin’s Thanksgiving

When they returned to Frobisher Bay, Martin Frobisher and his men “celebrated Communion and formally expressed their thanks through the ship’s Chaplain, Robert Wolfall, who ‘made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places’ (Collinson).[iv]

United Empire Loyalists & the Canadian Thanksgiving

Frobisher’s Thanksgiving resembles a Te Deum as would, after the Seven Years’ War, the Thanksgiving held by the people of Nova Scotia. However, United Empire Loyalists, the British who remained loyal to Britain after the Thirteen Colonies chose to part with their motherland, brought to British colonies to the north, where they fled, the tradition of celebrating that year’s harvest, although it may not have been a firmly-entrenched yearly event yet. But after W. W. I, Thanksgiving and Armistice, Canada’s current Remembrance day, were celebrated the same week and seemed indistinguishable.

Two Different Feasts: Thanksgiving and Armistice

Yet the two feasts are of a somewhat different nature. In the lengthy chronicle of human deeds or misdeeds, wars stand as mostly inglorious events. The end of a war is cause for celebration, despite devastating losses. However, giving thanks to Providence because the earth has been generous seems mainly joyful. What is celebrated is life eternal. So, I am rather pleased that, on January 31, 1957 “[Canadian] Parliament proclaimed ‘a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed,’ to be observed on the second Monday in October.”

At this point, the Canadian celebration merged with the apparently regular American observance which was first conducted by the Pilgrims’ first harvest in Massachusetts in 1621 and brought to Canada by United Empire Loyalists. But the Canadian feast would be celebrated earlier that its American counterpart. In the United States, Thanksgiving is now observed later than in Canada, but this may not have been the case in earlier days. Given that American winters do not usually set in as early as Canadian winters, in most Canadian provinces, an earlier celebration makes sense. In fact, there are parts of the United States where winter is not a cold season.

However, Sir Martin Frobisher’s Te Deum, “God, We Praise You,” was called a Thanksgiving and it is remembered as such. The Canadian Encyclopedia‘s entry underscores the fact that “Frobisher sailed for Elizabeth I, whose reign was marked by public acts of giving thanks; Elizabeth expressed her gratitude for having lived to ascend the throne (and not being whacked by “Bloody Mary”), for delivery from the Spanish Armada and in her last speech to Parliament, for her subjects. The first known use of the word “Thanksgiving” in English text was in a translation of the bible in 1533, which was intended as an act of giving thanks to God.”

So whether it be the end of a destructive storm, the end of atrocious hostilities or the sight of a plentiful harvest, we give thanks for weather becalmed, for peace restored and for our daily bread. Some people still say Grace.

(please click on the picture to enlarge it)
Le Bénédicité, by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, 1740

(Photo credit: Wikipedia) 

[i] Richard Collinson, The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher: In Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West (Cambridge University Press, 2010), quoted in Laura Neilson Bonikowsky, “The First Thanksgiving in North America,” The Canadian Encyclopedia.

[ii] Radisson and Groseillers’s discovery led to the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company, “the oldest commercial corporation in North America and one of the oldest in the world.” (Hudson’s Bay Company, Wikipedia)

[iii]The First Thanksgiving in North America,” The Canadian Encyclopedia.

[iv] Richard Collinson, The Three Voyages of Martin Frobisher: In Search of a Passage to Cathaia and India by the North-West (Cambridge University Press, 2010), quoted in Laura Neilson Bonikowsky The First Thanksgiving in North America,” the Canadian Encyclopedia.

composer: Sir Edward Elgar 1st Baronet, OM, GCVO (2 June 1857 – 23 February 1934) 
piece: Cello Concerto in E minor 
performer:  Jacqueline du Pré (26 January 1945 – 19 October 1987)
director: Daniel Barenboim

Nature morte, by Chardin

© Micheline Walker
24 November 2012