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. There are those—mainly Americans upset at having their holiday co-opted—who argue that it wasn’t a “real” Thanksgiving. I would counter that Frobisher had reason to give thanks, and that giving thanks was an important aspect of Elizabethan society, so it would have been a natural thing for him and his men to do.
Sir Martin Frobisher, mariner, explorer, chaser of fool’s gold, made three voyages from England to the New World in search of a passage to Asia. He discovered the bay that is named for him and returned with tons of dirt that he thought contained gold. Each expedition was bigger than the preceding one and on his third, in 1578, he commanded a flotilla of 15 ships and more than 400 men. They set sail on May 31 for Baffin Island, where they intended to establish a gold mining operation and the first English colony in the New World. On July 1, they sighted Resolution Island, but they were driven by storms across the entrance to Hudson Strait, the fleet was dispersed and one ship, which carried their prefabricated barracks, was sunk by ice. Another ship deserted the flotilla and sailed back to England. The remaining ships assembled at the Countess of Warwick’s Island, which is known today as Kodlunarn Island, a tiny speck of land in Frobisher Bay. They established two mines on the island and set up shops to test the ore from other mines. The mine sites and the ruins of a stone house are still clearly visible.
The vicious storms blew the fleet around Hudson Strait for most of July and when they finally assembled at their anchorage in Frobisher Bay, they 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” (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).
While Thanksgiving is traditionally a harvest celebration and Frobisher’s was for a safe arrival, it was undeniably an act of giving thanks, one committed with relief and within the context of their society. 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. The tradition of gratitude was continued each fall as people gave thanks for the harvest that would see them through the winter. The observance of this tradition was conducted by the Pilgrims’ first harvest in Massachusetts in 1621, and was as much an expression of gratitude and relief at having survived their arrival in the New World as it was for the bringing in of the harvest.
The celebration was brought to Nova Scotia in the 1750s and the citizens of Halifax commemorated the end of the Seven Years’ War (1763) with a day of Thanksgiving. Loyalists carried the celebration to other parts of the country. In 1879 Parliament declared November 6 as a day of Thanksgiving; it was celebrated as a national rather than a religious holiday. Later and earlier dates were observed, the most popular being the third Monday in October. After the First World War, Thanksgiving and Armistice (later Remembrance) Day were celebrated in the same week. It was not until January 31, 1957 that 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.