The First Thanksgiving in New Britain
People have long told the story of the “First Thanksgiving” in New England, naming the Pilgrims and Wampanoag as the acknowledged founders of the feast in 1621. This would have included rejoicing and prayer; special foods or those common to the season; and a period of sport or recreation. However, as Puritan doctrine was firmly established, the thanksgiving holiday became a strictly religious “holy day” which prescribed a day of prayer and pious humiliation, thanking God for His special Providence (often following a recent fortunate event). This was a community event, taking place usually anywhere in the autumn or early winter months, and enacted similarly to a Sabbath meeting. History books describe a sort of evolution of the holiday from there, as Puritan doctrine gave way to a somewhat more diverse Yankee tradition. When the Continental Congress proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in 1777, the recommended event was a solemn household feast that avoided servile labor and recreation.
New Britain Society, which was organized in May of 1754, had its first Thanksgiving Day that very year. It was a somewhat tumultuous and unsure time for the locals. The Seven Year’s War, a worldwide war mainly between colonial powers, had just begun here in America as the French and Indian War. Several men of New Britain were preparing or had already joined the British in their fight to oust the French from the vast lands to the West. Locally, New Britain Society was struggling to organize its church, which first involved the hiring of a pastor.
It was late in 1754 that the residents of New Britain realized that their first choice of pastor was not to be. So an invitation was extended to Reverend John Bunnell of West Haven, a man of considerable experience and recommendation. He would go on to preach for several Sabbaths, fast days, and the Thanksgiving of 1754, and would have become the first pastor but declined the position the following year.
So what of that first Thanksgiving holiday? We know that each colony proclaimed a certain day in autumn as the official Thanksgiving, and that the tradition by the mid-1700s was more commonly a household event than a community event. However, New Britain’s men needed to entice a deeply religious and conservative man to move to their humble and remote parish, and so a traditional, Puritan, communal Thanksgiving holy day was in order. At the time, Sabbath meetings, fast days, and Thanksgiving days were held in private homes along East Street or at the public school. There is no strong evidence as to where exactly the 1754 holiday took place, but likely at the school or one of the largest homes.
In addition to the conservative setting of this first Thanksgiving in New Britain would have likely been conservative in the feast. Meats would have included largely locally-caught game such as venison, goose, and wild turkey. Locally-grown produce would have included squash, kale, apples, cabbage, collard greens, potatoes, onions, radishes, and beets; these would have been largely cooked, often in stews or cream sauces. Pumpkin pie had already been established in New England, but more likely the people of New Britain would have brought mincemeat pie, apple pie, indian pudding, plum pudding, and figgy pudding. Regardless of the specific fare, which one can sample at historic thanksgiving events all around the state, we can certainly say that the first Thanksgiving of New Britain was an important event strongly linked to the history of this city.