An Internet search of Thanksgiving in Canada will bring up hundreds of entries, including a slew that mention the first Thanksgiving in North America as being celebrated by Martin Frobisher in Newfoundland in 1578.
That came as an unexpected surprise. First-hand accounts of the three voyages of Frobisher in 1576, 1577 and 1578 make absolutely no mention of the English explorer having landed in Newfoundland. What Forbisher was originally seeking was the fabled North-West Passage and gold in Canada’s Eastern Arctic. For his last journey, he had 15 ships and 100 men to set up the first colony and a mining operation to extract gold. Some of the ships were damaged or sunk by large ice floes before they reached their destination, while others were forced to turn back.
George Best, who sailed with Frobisher on his three voyages, mentions sailing only from England to Greenland and from there to locations in the Far North, such as Hall’s Island. Forbisher did land at the tip of Labrador (state papers of the first voyage uses the name Labrador), which is part of today’s province of Newfoundland and Labrador, but later accounts — not first-hand — of his voyages of discovery inexplicibly make referrence to only Newfoundland and not Labrador.
That Frobisher celebrated North America’s first Thanksgiving, years before the Pilgrims in the United States, is not disputed. Why so many have accepted that Newfoundland was the site of the celebration is the enigma. Even the Canadian Encyclopedia mentions the Eastern Arctic as the location — not Newfoundland. On the other hand, the on-line version of the Encyclopedia Britannica in an entry claims the first Thanksgiving in North America was celebrated by Frobisher’s men in 1878 at Newfoundland. Other Internet sites claim Rev. Wolfall officiated in Newfoundland.
Of course, there was a Rev. Wolfall, appointed by Queen Elizabeth, who was referred to by Best as “Mayster Wolfall.” And, Best does write that, “Mayster Wolfall ... made unto them a goodly sermon (on July 31, 1878), exhorting them especially to be thankful to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those dangerous places, and putting them in mynde of the uncertainetie of mans life, willed them to make themselves alwayes ready as resolute men to enjoy and accept thankefully whatsoever his divine Providence should appoynt.”
This sermon of Thanskgiving was delivered after a terrible storm had scattered the expedition’s ships and they were reunited at countess of “Warwicke sound.” In all accounts, the sound is in Meta Cognita, the name then given to Canada’s Arctic, at the entrance to Frobisher Bay, which cuts into the southeastern portion of Baffin Island in Nunavut. Yet, this was not even the first Thanksgiving in North America.
According to Best, Frobisher was “persuaded of a new and nearer passage to Catatya (China) ... (and) that voyage was not only possible by the Northwest, but also as he coulde prove, easie to bee performed.”
Sailing from Resolution Island (offshore from Baffin Island), Frobisher declared that a “forelande, with great gutte, bay, or passage, dividing as it were two mayne lands or continents asunder (Asia and North American).”
Frobisher really thought the strait he was sailing into led to the start of the Asian continent. In reality, he was thousands of kilometres from the “South Sea” of legend. It was said that the “sea which lieth on the back side of ye said New found land” was a passage to China “and all the dominions of the Great Cane (Khan) of Tartaria.” The “New found land” mentioned is Baffin Island, not today’s Newfoundland.
He spent two years attempting to get rich by mining what he believed was gold ore in Canada’s Arctic. What he found was fool’s gold, or iron pyrite, but his Thanksgiving celebration did occur well before the Pilgrims’ of Massachusetts in 1621. A special service of Thanksgving was held in July 1877, for the crew’s safe arrival on the shore of Hall’s Island (now Lok’s Island) along Frobisher Bay. Thinking that they had landed on the Asian coast, the company of adventurers feasted the evening before on “egges, fowle, and yong seale which the companie had killed in the field ...” The next morning on the 19th, Frobisher went ashore “with his highest company of gentlemen and souldioures (soldiers) to the number of fortie persons.” They erected on “top of a high hill ... a columne or crosse of stones ... and solemnly sounded a trumpet, and said certaine prayers, kneeling about the ancient, and honoured the place by the name of Mount Warwicke...” The Earl of Warwick was the expedition’s patron.
Actually, the Thanksgiving was a celebration to God for having brought them to a place filled with gold, although it later was found to be fool’s gold and worthless.
The confusion over Thanksgiving and Newfoundland seems to rest upon descriptions by later writers that Frobisher’s ships were driven by ice to the Newfoundland coast where the crews encountered “Indians.” In 1576, Frobisher was alleged to have captured one of the “natives” and took him back to England where the man soon died. Actully, it’s an invention, as the accounts of Frobisher and his fellow travellers mention the same incident as occurring off Baffin Island, not Newfoundland, and people encountered were Inuit.
Newfoundland was claimed for England by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583, a contemporary of Frobishers’, but it had been visited for decades earlier by Basque, French and English cod fishermen.
Thanksgiving in the era of European exploration of North America carried a different meaning than that of today. A particular event, such as a safe sea passage, was a reason for Thanksgiving. In 1763, the citizens of Halifax commemorated the end of the Seven Years War as a Thanksgiving Day.
November 6, 1879, was declared by the Canadian Parliament to be a day of Thanksgiving and a national holiday. After the First World War, Thanksgiving was celebrated on the Monday in the same week in which Armistice Day, November 11, was celebrated. In 1931, the two became separate holidays and Armistice Day was renamed Remembrance Day.
Finally, on January 31, 1957, 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 2nd Monday in October.”