Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Nunavut October 11, 2012 - 12:42 pm

Taissumani, Oct. 12

The First Thanksgiving in North America

An early portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher. (HARPER COLLECTION)
An early portrait of Sir Martin Frobisher. (HARPER COLLECTION)

Some might think this to be a belated column on Thanksgiving, the date having passed earlier this week.

But if I had written this column before 1957, I would have been early (and also very precocious, because I would have been under the age of 12.) Before then, Thanksgiving in Canada was celebrated at various times; since the first World War it had been celebrated in November, in the same week as Remembrance Day.

On Jan. 31, 1957 Parliament, under Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, proclaimed the second Monday in October to be “a day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” Thanksgiving has been in October ever since.

The wording of the proclamation reflected the largely rural culture of Canada at the time. Thanking God for the harvest that would sustain them through the winter was a continuation of the tradition begun in Massachusetts in 1621, when the Pilgrims gave thanks for their first harvest. That celebration, it has been noted, was also as much a thanks for having survived their arduous voyage to America.

But the Pilgrims were not the first to celebrate, through a formal giving of thanks, in North America. That honour is often given to Sir Martin Frobisher and his crew, for celebrating North America’s first Thanksgiving in 1578. But that is a mistake, despite what almost every history book and internet source will tell you. The event happened, but Frobisher did not participate in it. In fact, he wasn’t even there.

Frobisher’s third voyage, comprising 15 ships, was a mining venture – a search for the gold that the explorer thought he had found on a previous expedition. But it was also to be a voyage of colonisation, for Frobisher was to leave 100 men in “the land now called Meta Incognita.”
The ships crossed the Atlantic in June, with a stop on the Greenland coast. But the mouth of Frobisher Bay was “choaked up with ice,” to use the words of Frobisher’s chronicler, George Best. The Dennis sank, taking with it part of the prefabricated house, which spelled the end of the colonisation idea.

The Judith and Michael were separated from the fleet and presumed lost. Frobisher, on the Ayde, followed by a number of other ships, entered the turbulent waters of Hudson Strait, which he named “Mistaken Straytes.” He thought that it might be the entrance to a Northwest Passage, and that he could have sailed through it to China, but those were not his orders, and he regained his course for Frobisher Bay.

The Judith and the Michael, in the meantime, had not sunk after all, but had separated and experienced heavy ice and storms in trying to enter Frobisher Bay. They were reunited on July 13.

Best wrote that “...from the night of the first storm, which was about the first day of July, until… the sixe and twentith of the same, they never sawe any one day or houre, wherein they were not troubled with continuall daunger and feare of deathe…”

On July 20 the Judith, under Captain Edward Fenton, finally made anchor in the bay near an island known as Winter’s Furnace. Two days later on Countess of Warwick’s Island – now called Kodlunarn Island, a mis-spelling of the Inuktitut word for “white man,” – the crew gave thanks for their deliverance from the savage weather they had endured.

The Judith carried an Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Robert Wolfall, described as “being of good reputation among the best,” a man who was “well seated and settled at home in his own country, with a good and large living, having a good honest woman to wife, and very towardly children.”

Wolfall celebrated Holy Communion for the crew, the first such Anglican service ever held in Canada. They continued that day “in prayer and thanks giving to God, as well for the delivering of us from the dangers past, as also for his great goodness in placing us in so safe an harbour. Desiring him of his mercy to continue this his great good favour towards us.”

And so this first celebration of Thanksgiving in North America was not in thanks for a successful harvest, but rather for a safe passage and a safe harbour at their destination. But it was Thanksgiving nonetheless.

Frobisher arrived from Hudson Strait a number of days later, overjoyed to find the crews of the Judith and the Michael alive. He and his crew knelt and gave “humble and hearty thanks” to God. Then Reverend Wolfall preached a sermon.

This too was a service of Thanksgiving, and Holy Communion may have been served. He exhorted the crews “to be thankful to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places, and… willed them to make themselves always ready, as resolute men, to enjoy and accept thankfully whatsoever adventure his divine Providence should appoint.”

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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