Every schoolkid will tell you about the origins of Thanksgiving. How the Pilgrims in Massachusetts shared a late autumn feast with members of the Wampanoag nation after the colonists’ first harvest in 1621. How the celebration became an annual tradition commemorated throughout the growing nation. And how Thanksgiving Day was eventually declared a national holiday that Americans still honor around the family dinner table.
Sound like what you learned in school?
Well, as with so many accounts of our nation’s past, the Thanksgiving origin story is just a little more complex than that (and a lot more interesting). And thanks to the historians at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, you can learn all about it this weekend.
An annual day of thanks does indeed harken back to the very early days of our nation. But it wasn’t observed only in Massachusetts. In 1619, a group of English colonists celebrated a thanksgiving service and feast after their ship safely landed near Jamestown, Virginia, and they vowed to establish the tradition every year thereafter.
Thanksgiving was celebrated sporadically in various American colonies throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation encouraging a nationwide day of thanks, though his declaration had more to do with a religious observance than an autumn feast. Governors of various states gradually embraced the idea, and the observance of Thanksgiving became more widespread – until the 1850s.
For whatever reason, the origin of Thanksgiving – and indeed the young nation – had become associated with New England, not Virginia. So as the national divide over slavery polarized the North and the South, southerners soured on anything associated with Massachusetts. They considered Thanksgiving a “Yankee holiday” and adorned with that region’s symbols and traditions: Pilgrims, turkey, pumpkins, and cranberries. So rather than celebrate the annual event, many Confederate sympathizers chose to fast on Thanksgiving, not feast.
When President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday at the height of the Civil War in 1863, he was well aware of this controversy. In his proclamation he intentionally refrained from mentioning any references to the geographic origins of the feast, instead looking at the shared holiday as a way to “heal the wounds of the nation.”
Union soldiers fighting in the war made the most of the new holiday as they paused to enjoy a special meal. Their Confederate counterparts, however, most likely abstained.
Today, as most Americans honor Thanksgiving with their own traditions, few probably realize the fraught history surrounding the holiday. If you’re interested in learning more about its origins, you’re invited to a special ranger talk at 10:00 a.m. this Saturday at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Park historian Nick Sacco will share his insight on the history of Thanksgiving during the Civil War. The lecture is free, but reservations are required. Call (314) 842-1867 ext. 230 to sign up.
Meanwhile, warm Thanksgiving wishes from Jefferson National Parks Association!