History of Thanksgiving Day

As a fans of antiques and collectibles, whose interest in history is peaked by the things we collect, we thought it would be interesting to provide here an account of Thanksgiving in America as it was thought in more than a century ago. What follows is “The History of Thanksgiving Day” as it appeared in pages of “The Ladies’ World” magazine in 1892.

The History of Thanksgiving Day

The Ladies’ World

The Ladies’ World

Thanksgiving Day is one of America’s favorite holidays. It is a joyous time when families get together over a traditional turkey dinner, to give thanks for the blessings of the year. The celebration has a long and curious history. Days set apart for special thanksgiving to the Lord were kept by the Israelites and are mentioned throughout the Bible. The Hebrews offered thanks for abundant harvests with their eight day Feast of Tabernacles; the Romans paid tribute to Ceres, the goddess of corn; and the Greeks had their tribute to Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. The custom is ancient and universal.

The first Thanksgiving held in North America was conducted in 1578, by an English minister named Wolf all, on the shores of Newfoundland. The reverend accompanied an expedition under Frobisher which brought the first English colony to settle on these shores. The records of this day’s observances were therefore recorded in the ship’s log: “On Monday morning, May 27, 1578, aboard the Ayde we received the communion by the minister of Gravesend and prepared as good Christians toward God and resolute men for all fortunes and toward night we departed toward Tilberry Hope. Here we highly praised God altogether upon our knees [and] gave him humble thanks, and Minister Wolfall, a learned man, made unto us a godly sermon, exhorting all especially to be thankful to God for His strange and miraculous deliverance in those dangerous places.”

The earliest record of any similar observance within the present territory of the United States was held by the Popham colony settled at Sagadahoe, on the east coast of Maine, in August 1607. But these were only thanksgiving services which lasted a few hours and did not color the whole day.

The real origin of Thanksgiving as a day for prayer, rejoicing and feasting must be attributed to Governor Bradford, the first governor of Massachusetts Colony. Being the leader of the Plymouth Pilgrims, Bradford proclaimed that a day of thanksgiving would be held in the autumn of 1621. They certainly had reason to celebrate. They were still alive! One hundred forty-nine people were aboard the Mayflower when she set sail on September 16, 1620, across the perilous North Atlantic, in search of religious freedom and a place called “Virginia” in the New World. When the ship, under the command of an old whaling captain, landed 65 days later, four crewmen and one passenger were dead. The following winter on the land took its toll. The harsh conditions claimed the lives of over half their population.

The Pilgrims’ troubles began when storms blew the Mayflower off course by a couple of hundred miles. The ship first sighted land near Cape Cod and sailed south, but soon turned back and anchored within the cape. Tired of sailing and eager to go ashore, they sent boats out to find a suitable harbor. They decided on Plymouth Harbor, as it is now called, and here, on the 21st of December, 1620, the Pilgrims landed on a rock that has become as famous as the Mayflower that anchored before it. There was a plus and a minus to this choice of location. Since they were beyond the northern limits of Virginia and its jurisdiction, they would have to answer only to them selves. This prompted them to draw up the Mayflower Compact, which declared them to be a self-governing community, the first in America. The down side to all this new freedom was loss of the safety and provisions of the Virginia Colony that they were to be a part of.

As the Pilgrims made their way over the snow-clad shore, there was no time for rest. At once, the sound of the ax rang through the cold winter air. On a prominent hill overlooking the bay, a crude fort was thrown up and a few cannon put in place. At its foot, two rows of huts were laid out and staked, to accommodate 19 families. For weeks they worked in snow, and sleet, and rain. The severity of the weather on the bleak coast, along with the effects of scurvy or “general debility” and the lack of good shelter, prostrated many. Death entered the desperate little community, and before the spring came to cheer them with hope, more lay buried on the bank than there were to mourn them.

The survivors tried to remain positive. They had found some corn buried by the natives and the winter was almost over. If they held on till spring, they would plant and be able to take care of themselves. Then providence sent them Tisquantum, an Indian of the Wampanoag tribe, who had been taken by fishermen to London, where he learned to speak some English. Having been treated well and returned safely to his native land, the Indian took pity on the colonists and befriended them. They called his “Squanto.” He joined the Pilgrims and showed them how to trap, hunt and catch fish; how to plant the New World crops of squash and corn; and became their interpreter with the neighboring Indian tribe of the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit.

With Squanto’s help, the settlers prospered, and when fall arrived, a bountiful harvest was at hand that insured that the colony would have ample food to get them through the next winter. Governor Bradford called for a celebration, proclaiming a day of thanksgiving to God. An account of this first Thanksgiving week (not just a day) in Plymouth was recorded by one of the colonists, Edward Window, in a letter to a friend in England on December 11, 1621: “Our harvest being gotten in our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered in the fruits of our labors. They four killed as much fowl as with a little help beside served the company about a week. At which times among other recreation we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer which they brought and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captains and others.”

The Ladies’ World

The Ladies’ World

Historical opinion is divided on what the Pilgrims ate at this feast. Some experts confidently assert that they had duck, goose, corn, pumpkins, wild fruits and nuts, wild honey and maybe some turkeys. There is no proof that turkey was eaten of Plymouth that year. The work of preparing the feast was taken on by four Englishwomen and two teenage girls (13 Pilgrim women had died during the first winter). By all accounts, they did the best they could with the supplies on hand. Their supply of flour had long run out, so we know there wasn’t any bread or pumpkin pie. There was also an absence of milk, cheese and butter, as there were no cows aboard the Mayflower: For recreation between bouts of eating, the colonists and their guests competed in footraces and jumping matches. The Indians no doubt displayed their accuracy with bow and arrow, while the white men with guns impressed them with their marksmanship.

The second Thanksgiving Day in the New World was celebrated by the Pilgrims two years later, on July 30, 1623. The autumn of 1622 had brought a poor harvest. After a miserable winter with little food to eat, the settlers planted corn in the spring of 1623, only to have a drought begin in May that lasted through June and into July. The colonists spent an entire day fasting and praying for relief. Their prayers had been answered and their spirits raised. Governor Bradford then proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and grateful prayers.

Neither of these Thanksgiving celebrations were meant to establish an annual holiday. Sometimes Thanksgiving days were appointed once a year, sometimes twice, and there were times that a year or two were skipped. It all depended on whether there was any reason to give thanks; some years were too bleak with little to be thankful for.

The Puritans who landed at Charlestown in 1630 to establish the Boston and Massachusetts Bay Colony held a day of prayer that many have called the first standard American Thanksgiving Day: They arrived too late in the summer to clear fields and plant crops. By autumn, their supplies were dangerously low and when February arrived with still no supply ships in sight, Governor Winthrop declared a day of fasting and prayer. On the morning of the designated fast, February 22, the ship Lyon appeared in Boston Harbor with their supplies, and their fast day turned into a day of feasting.

From that time until 1684, there were at least 22 public thanksgiving days proclaimed in Massachusetts, about one for every two years. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, there were many Thanksgivings celebrated on various days of the week and months of the year. During the Revolutionary War, when the colonies stuck closer together, the Continental Congress recommended days of Thanksgiving. In October 1777, all 13 of the colonies joined in a common thanksgiving celebration to commemorate the patriots’ victory over the British at Saratoga.

George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789, the same year he was inaugurated. He stated, in part, “Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; and that we may all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country, previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal manifold mercies, and the favorable interposition of His providence, in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union and plenty which we have enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish Constitutions of Government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors, which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”

Washington’s proclamation was only for 1789. It was not until 1795 that he proclaimed another Thanksgiving Day. Although many people embraced the idea, just as many didn’t care or were opposed to the holiday. It was difficult to arrive at a date that was convenient for everyone. The season of the farmer was not the same as the season of the herdsman and the Puritans were against the setting of a specific date. Thomas Jefferson openly condemned the holiday during his two terms on the grounds that the government should not be involved in any religious observances, because of the separation of church and state. President James Madison held a different view of the holiday, as he urged the nation to observe a day of thanksgiving in 1815, to commemorate the War of 1812.

The holiday might have been forgotten had it not been for the efforts of Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” who, in 1827, launched a one-woman campaign to have Thanksgiving Day celebrated throughout the nation as a yearly day of thanks.

The Ladies' World 3

The Ladies’ World

As editor of the Boston “Ladies’ Magazine,” she had an open forum to express her views, and when the Ladies’ Magazine merged with Godey’s Lady’s Book of Philadelphia, Mrs. Hale had the largest audience of any periodical in America. She wrote numerous articles on the importance of the Thanksgiving holiday and tirelessly appealed by letter and in person to governors, presidents, and other influential people who might further her cause.

One of her editorials, written in September 1863, illustrates Mrs. Hale’s enthusiasm for the holiday: “Can we not then, following the appointment of Jehovah in the ‘Feast of Weeks,’ or Harvest Festival, establish our yearly Thanksgiving as a permanent American National Festival which shall be celebrated on the last Thursday in November in every State of the Union? Indeed, it has been nearly accomplished. For the last twelve or fourteen years the States have made approaches to this unity. In 1859 thirty States held their Thanksgiving Festival on the same day-the last Thursday in November. It was also celebrated that year on board several of the American fleets; ships in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and on the Brazil station; by the Americans in Berlin at our Prussian Embassy; in Paris and in Switzerland; and American missionaries have signified their readiness to unite in the Festival if it should be established on a particular day that can be known as the American Thanksgiving. Then in every quarter of the globe our nationality would be recognized in connection with our gratitude to the Divine Giver of all our blessings. The pious and loving thought that every American was joining in heart with the beloved family at home and with the church to which he belonged would thrill his soul with the purest feelings of patriotism and the deepest emotions of thankfulness for his religious enjoyments.”

Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale finally got her wish. On October 3, 1863 (possibly responding to her above editorial), President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday to be observed on the last Thursday in November. Lincoln’s Proclamation touched upon the North-South conflict that was raging on when the document was written: “The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict … I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens …”

To close this history of Thanksgiving, I would like to offer a brief discussion on turkeys. In New England in the 19th century, a raffle of turkeys (and other fowl) was traditionally held on Thanksgiving eve, and there was also a shooting match on Thanksgiving morning. An account by the Reverend Francis Blades recalls a turkey shoot of the 1840s in Michigan: On Thanksgiving Day, he was to hold a service in a schoolhouse near where the village of Flint was founded. Arriving at the school, he found a turkey match in full play. He was somewhat worried that the noise of the shooting match would disturb his service, and the motley crowd that had gathered for the match did not offer much suggestion of religious service. The elder looked on the shooting for a time, a participant asked him if he would “take a shot.” The elder promptly said, “Yes, on one condition, that when I shoot and this shooting match is concluded, you will all come with me to the schoolhouse for the Thanksgiving service.” This was promptly agreed to. The elder borrowed a rifle from one of the sportsmen, and kneeling upon his left knee, fired, taking the head clear off the turkey. This shot was received with expressions of admiration and applause. When the shooting match was concluded, the whole party accompanied the elder to the schoolhouse, and many of that motley crowd dated their religious experience from that service and from that hour.

A letter written by J. S. Tibbits to the Michigan Pioneer Society on March 23, 1874, tells how turkeys were hunted: “The wild turkey several hundred were frequently to be met with. The usual mode of hunting was for two or three persons to proceed cautiously through the woods till they came upon a flock, then suddenly fire at random among them, the object being to scatter them in all directions. When thus scattered they will invariably return to the same spot to get together again, the old ones coming first to -call their young together. The hunters, hid in some selected place, with their ‘turkey calls’ ready for use, would sit patiently for the return of the old birds. These turkey calls consist of the hollow bone of the turkey’s wing, and, in the mouth of an experience hunter, can be made to exactly imitate the piping sound of the mother bird when calling her brood together. Soon the maternal notes of the old birds are heard, and the hunters respond with their ‘calls,’ luring them on to certain destruction.

The wild turkey is sometimes caught in pens made of poles, some five or six feet in height and covered over the top to prevent their escape. A covered passage-way is made under the pen large enough for the turkeys to crawl through. Corn or other grain is scattered in the passage-way and inside the pen .The unsuspecting birds, seeing the grain, commence picking it up, and thus one after another crawl through the hole in the pen. Once in, forever in,” for they never think of putting their heads down to crawl out again.”

Thanksgiving Menu
Raw oysters, boiled rockfish, egg sauce, potato balls, roasted turkey, stuffing, giblet gravy, browned sweet potatoes, baked squash, cranberry jelly, sour grape jelly, moulded spinach, venison pasty, ham baked in cider, mince pies, pumpkin pies, fruit, coffee, Hygeia sparkling Lithia water.

Thanksgiving Cake
Sift two pounds and a half of flour in which mix three teaspoonfuls of baking powder, cream three pounds of sugar and one of butter together, add eighteen eggs and beat five minutes: add half a pound of blanched and chopped almonds, a teacupful of preserved lemon peel Bake two hours.

Share With Others
As, with matronly pride, you survey your table’s abundance, may it not suggest a possible paucity in the larder of some less fortunate neighbor to dispatch a well-filled basket to his humble abode, thus causing a my of sunshine to enter there?

Then, with the ushering in of the Thanksgiving morn, throw dull care to the winds. Let the little ones romp, the cat purr by the fire, the man of the house smoke his cigar in the parlor.

—The Ladies World,
November 1892

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