Thanksgiving’s Complicated History

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?

Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner – Thomas Nast 1869

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.

Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation – Library of Congress

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!

Preserving the Delta’s Heritage

The Lower Mississippi Delta Region is the cradle of rich multi-cultural traditions, brimming with stories and sites that testify to both our nation’s diversity and to its struggles. Helping preserve the region’s historic and cultural treasures is the focus of the Lower Mississippi Delta Initiative (LMDI), a National Park Service grant program. This year, JNPA began administering the program on behalf of the Park Service, and we recently distributed funding to 23 amazing projects!

The Lower Mississippi Delta Initiative was established by Congress in 1994 to support archeological, historical, cultural, and heritage projects in the communities of the Delta Region. The Lower Mississippi Delta Region is comprised of 219 counties across the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.

Each year, the initiative awards Local Heritage Grants of up to $25,000 to not-for-profit organizations to complete projects pertaining to Native American culture and heritage, African-American culture and heritage, public roads and visitor use plans, regional music heritage, museums, HBCUs, archeological sites, and historic buildings and structures. This year we were proud to award 23 grants to organizations representing every state in the region.  Many of these organizations are small, emerging, and/or rural, and these grants can make a hug impact in their ability to achieve their mission.

This year’s projects included music festivals, murals, museum exhibits, educational programs for students, historic building renovations, historical markers, and others. One project that has already taken place, Arkansas Peace Week, featured activities to educate the public, promote peace, and raise awareness for local organizations. One such activity was a youth art contest with the theme of “End racism. Build peace.”

Madison McKnight, a senior at Jessieville High School, won first place in the 11th-12th grade division with her entry, “Peace Over Racism,” which depicted American civil rights activist Daisy Bates. Arkansas Peace Week.

JNPA is gratified to be a partner in this worthy project. “We are pleased to partner with the National Park Service in ensuring that communities throughout the Lower Mississippi Delta region have an opportunity to preserve and promote the culture and heritage of this vibrant region,” said David A. Grove, President and CEO of JNPA.

Other LMDI projects will be completed throughout the coming year, and we are excited to see the results! Applications for the 2023 grant cycle will be available next spring. Check the LMDI Local Heritage Grant Program website for updates.

All About Julia

Julia Dent grew up in the early 19th century on a plantation near St. Louis named White Haven.  The fifth of seven children, she was an outgoing, active girl who fished, rode horses, and played in the woods with the plantation’s enslaved children.  Julia once told her school friends she would someday wed “a gallant, brave, dashing soldier.” Little did she know that she would indeed marry a soldier, and that he would become commander of the armed forces and later the 18th president of the United States.

You can learn more about the long and eventful life of Julia Dent Grant later this week.

Some would say Julia Dent and Ulysses Grant were an unlikely pair.  She was spirited and gregarious; he was shy.  She was raised in a slave-owning family; his family was opposed to slavery.  In fact, Grant’s choice to marry into the Dent family worsened tensions with his father, and none of the Grants attended Ulysses and Julia’s wedding in 1848.

Mr. and Mrs. Grant

Against the odds, the Grants’ marriage lasted for 37 years, and through all their many hardships and accomplishments, their close bond never wavered.  The couple endured numerous separations as Grant pursued his military career.  And though Julia was sometimes able to accompany her husband to distant Army postings, she returned home to White Haven for the birth of their four children.  During the Civil War, she served as the financial manager and agent for White Haven in her husband’s absence, leasing sections of the farm, collecting rent, and consolidating land titles.

Ulysses and Julia Grant and their children. Credit: Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

As the nation’s First Lady, Julia was an active participant in presidential matters and reveled in her eight-year role as hostess to the nation.  She entertained lavishly and welcomed dignitaries from around the world to the White House.  At the end of Ulysses’ second term, the couple embarked on a two-year worldwide tour that further burnished her reputation as a valuable partner to the former president.

Grand reception of the notabilities of the nation, at the White House 1865. Credit: Library of Congress

Her later years were difficult, however.  Grant lost most of their money in a bogus financial deal, and the couple was nearly destitute.  By the time he signed a lucrative contract to write his now-famous memoirs, Grant was dying of throat cancer.  Julia lived as a widow for 17 years until she died at age 76 in 1902.

This Saturday at 10 a.m., you’re invited to learn more about the long eventful life of Julia Dent Grant.  Historian Pam Sanfilippo will present “Julia Dent Grant and Family,” the annual John Y. Simon lecture at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Pam Sanfilippo

Pam served as park ranger, education director and historian at the park for many years and is now Program Manager for Museum Services and Interpretation at Gateway Arch National Park. She is the author of numerous essays, articles, and publications. Her biography of Julia Dent Grant is scheduled for publication by Southern Illinois University. Pam’s talk will present highlights from her research on Julia and her family.

For reservations to this presentation, call (314) 842-1867 x230.

Hidden Treasures?

When Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park joined the National Park Service (NPS) in 2020, historians already knew quite a lot about the 18th century French colonial village.  The unique vertical log construction of some of the homes was well documented, as were the interactions of the many different cultures and nationalities who migrated to the town.  But are there secrets still buried beneath the historic sites in Ste. Genevieve? 

Courtesy NPS

That’s what the Park Service wants to find out.  This summer agency officials dispatched specialists from the NPS Midwest Archeology Center to investigate the grounds of the park’s historic buildings, including the Jean Baptiste Vallé house, Green Tree Tavern, and the Bauvais-Amoureux house.  The archaeologists are searching for items such as the remains of trash pits, outbuildings like barns, kitchens and stables, and perhaps even a privy or two.

Researching spaces outside the main homes can reveal information about how people lived or worked on-site, including enslaved men and women or hired servants. Information like this is invaluable to creating a complete picture of a historic community, since accounts of these individuals are often left out of traditional records. With the help of MWAC, park officials hope to gain a better understanding of the history of the park’s buildings and their occupants.

Courtesy NPS

To locate artifacts or remains of old structures, the archeologists conducted geophysical surveys of each property they studied.  Among the state-of-the art instruments they used were magnetometers, ground-penetrating radar equipment, and electromagnetic induction meters.  (Pretty high-tech stuff!)  All of the data they collected will be analyzed over the next year or two, and the scientists will generate a comprehensive report of their findings.

The Midwest Archeology Center has conducted research for more than 70 NPS sites throughout the mid-continent.  Using high-tech equipment and good old-fashioned digging tools, its studies have ranged from 10,000-year-old American Indian campsites to the garbage in Abraham Lincoln’s backyard.

We can’t wait to find out what the archeologists uncover at Ste. Genevieve, and you can be sure we’ll let you know when we learn the results.  Meanwhile, be sure to pay a visit to the park to get a firsthand look at this amazing site.   

Exploring the Life of Ulysses S. Grant

Just in time for the upcoming wedding anniversary of Ulysses and Julia Grant, the National Park Service has created a new online exhibit exploring the life and legacy of the nation’s 18th president.  The expansive exhibit amasses artifacts, documents, and photographs from numerous Park Service sites, including Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

As one might expect from such a multi-faceted figure as Ulysses Grant, his life encompasses many aspects, including his early upbringing and family life as well as his military career and presidency.  And the fascinating new exhibit covers them all.

There are more than 20 national sites with connections to Grant, many of them housing collections that include artifacts, portraits, and documents related to the president or his family members.  But thanks to this new virtual exhibit, many of these items can now be viewed in one accessible location.  They shed light on little-known facets of his life, helping us gain greater insights into the famous man.

Drawing of Church Steeples by Ulysses S. Grant (Courtesy The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 1 and Library of Congress)

Although Grant is celebrated for his military and political achievements, his artistic side is less well known.  The exhibit features sample of some of his watercolor paintings. When he was a West Point cadet, he enrolled in several drawing classes and developed this hobby over the years.  Sadly only eight of his paintings have survived to the present day.

Then there are the charming vestiges of the Grants’ everyday life, like Julia’s ivory sewing kit, Ulysses’ cigar holder, the couple’s ivory and silver coffee service, and even the leather boots worn by Julia’s sister Emma.

Courtesy NPS

The exhibit explores Grant’s military career from his early days at West Point to his role as commander of the entire Union Army during the Civil War.  The surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in 1865 is highlighted with a color image of a Currier & Ives print of the two generals signing the surrender documents, a photo of the chairs and table used during the signing ceremony, and a poignant letter outlining the terms of surrender.

Slave quarters at White Haven, prior to removal (photo courtesy of NPS)

Grant’s experience with the institution of slavery is a recurrent theme in the exhibit.  From an early age, he was taught that slavery was wrong and that his Southern relatives “had depended too much on slave labor to be trained in self-reliance.”  When Grant married into the slaveholding Dent family, it worsened tensions with his father (none of the Grants attended Ulysses and Julia’s wedding).

Yet when the couple occupied White Haven in the 1850s, they lived and worked alongside dozens of enslaved African Americans, most of whom were owned by Grant’s father-in-law (though Grant himself owned an enslaved man named William Jones, whom he later freed).  This experience strengthened Grant’s hatred of slavery and commitment to abolish the institution, and set the stage for him to become one of the great civil rights presidents in American history.   

The new Grant exhibit is just the latest virtual exhibit created by the National Park Service Museum Management Program, whose aim is to make the broad range of NPS collections widely available to online users. You can see numerous other offerings at the program’s website.  

In honor of Ulysses and Julia’s 174th wedding anniversary on August 22nd, you may want to brush up on the life of Julia Dent Grant.  She had a long and event-filled life as the wife of a Civil War general and U.S. president.  Also check out her personal memoirs, which are available from JNPA’s online store, or at the gift shop at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

Une Femme Courageuse

Visitors to the historic Bauvais-Amoureux House in Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park usually marvel over its unique French colonial architecture – it is one of only five surviving poteaux-en-terre (meaning post-in-ground) houses in North America. But while the 1792 structure is truly unique, even more fascinating is the story of one of its owners, Madame Pélagie Amoureux.

Pélagie was an African American woman born in 1805 and enslaved by the Bauvais-Vitale family. She married Benjamin Amoureux, a white man, in 1830. Interracial marriage was not legal in Missouri at the time, so they traveled to Illinois to marry before returning to Ste. Genevieve. Their first son, Felix, was born in 1831 and was also enslaved by the Bauvais-Vitale family until he and his mother were freed in 1832. Pélagie and Benjamin were not allowed to live in the same house even while married, so Benjamin purchased a house for Pélagie from the family of Jean Baptiste Bauvais in the 1850’s, which they then renamed the Amoureux house.  The couple had five children over the course of their marriage and were finally allowed to live together as a family in the Amoureux house in the 1860’s.

An undated historic photo of Amoureux House. Credit: Library of Congress
Pelagie Amoureux and her family. Credit: NPS

Over the course of her life, Pélagie was not afraid to stand up for herself, despite being both African American and a woman. On three separate occasions, she sued people who threatened or harmed her. While the courts did not side with her in any of the cases, she still did what she could to stand up for her rights. Pélagie died in 1890.  Her children and their descendants continued to live in the Amoureux house until 1963. After changing owners a handful of times, the Bauvais-Amoureux house was donated to the National Park Service in 2019 as the first official property of Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park.

The park staff is committed to bringing to light the story of Pelagie and other overlooked figures from the town’s history.  We encourage you to take a ranger-led tour of the Bauvais-Amoureux when you visit the park.

The Bauvais-Amoureux House today. Credit: NPS

Clinton’s “Birthplace” – in Japan?

If you haven’t made it to Hope, Arkansas, you haven’t had a chance to visit Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site.  Unless, of course, you’ve been to the Japanese island of Okinawa.  Wait…what?

We’re guessing you wouldn’t expect to tour the boyhood home of a U.S. president in Japan.  But you can (sort of).  Eccentric Japanese businessman Takeharu Shiraishi, an admirer of Bill Clinton, built an exact replica of the president’s birthplace home on the grounds of a private golf resort.  This was in 2000, just as the 42nd president was arriving in Okinawa for the G-8 Summit.  Clinton apparently never toured the building, though he later met Mr. Shiraishi.

The modest two-story house features the same white clapboard siding and green trim as its authentic counterpart in Arkansas.  It is even furnished much like the original, with period-appropriate furniture and antique appliances purchased in the U.S.  The home originally functioned as a tourist attraction then was later repurposed as a daycare center.  It has reportedly fallen into disrepair, unlike the real thing in Arkansas. 

So if you’re interested in experiencing the ACTUAL birthplace home of Bill Clinton, we suggest you take a trip to Hope.  National Park Service rangers give tours every 45 minutes Sunday through Friday.  You can also explore exhibits at the park Visitor Center and, of course, stop in at JNPA’s gift shop.  A virtual tour of the home is also available for non-travelers, as is our online store.  

President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site in Hope, Arkansas

Hold Your Horses!

There’s always a diverse crowd visiting our national park partners, but four-legged visitors?  Well, that’s who you’ll see at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site this Saturday.

As a tribute to Ulysses Grant’s lifelong passion for horses, the park will host Horses and Grant at White Haven this Saturday.  Horses from area ranchers and owners will be on hand to help park interpreters explain the central role that the animals played in the 18th president’s life.

Illustration by Leslie Przybylek 

From the time he was a small boy, Grant loved to ride, train, and care for horses.  Horses were also vital to him as a soldier and farmer.  He was an accomplished rider both in his military career and his private life, and owned a succession of horses throughout his life. In fact, it was thought he bought the White Haven property from his wife’s family after the Civil War mainly to breed and raise horses.

Original horse barn on the White Haven property

At the park this Saturday, there will be formal demonstrations on horsemanship, saddles, and the history of racing, as well as hands-on activities for children. The free event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; reservations are not required.  It is offered as one of the site’s Grant bicentennial activities.

Songs of Freedom

If you like rousing jazz and swing music, you’ll want to head to Little Rock, Arkansas, this Friday evening. The U.S. Army’s official touring big band, the Jazz Ambassadors, will present a 90-minute concert at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site.

Credit: The U.S. Army Field Band

The theme of Friday’s concert is Songs of Freedom, Stories from the Civil Rights Movement.  It’s fitting that the musicians will be performing these selections at Central High, since it served as the frontline of America’s school desegregation battles in the 1950s. 

The 19-member Jazz Ambassadors have received widespread acclaim at home and abroad, earning the ensemble the title “America’s Big Band.” The musicians have performed in all 50 states and overseas.  Their stop in Little Rock is part of their Summer 2022 tour.  Check out the clip below to hear a snippet of their musical style.

The Songs of Freedom concert will take place outdoors on the park grounds on Friday, June 24 from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m.  It is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site at (501) 374-1957.

Credit: The U.S. Army Field Band

The Newest Addition to Ste. Gen is also the Oldest

The newest acquisition to Ste. Genevieve National Historical Park’s historic buildings happens to be the oldest structure in the community.  While the Green Tree Tavern has played numerous roles in the small Missouri town, it now serves as a reminder of the complex history of this unique European settlement.

The Green Tree Tavern in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, is a rare surviving example of French Colonial architecture known as poteaux sur sole (post on sill). Its unusual construction featured walls made of hand-hewn white oak logs arranged vertically rather than the more traditional horizontal log structure used elsewhere.  Recent studies of the building’s timbers confirmed a construction date of 1790, making it the oldest home in the town and possibly the oldest home west of the Mississippi.

Green Tree Tavern c. 1934

The tavern has filled many different roles for many different people.  It was originally built as a home for French Canadian Nicolas Janis and his family.  When they migrated to the area, they brought with them at least 10 enslaved people, many of whose ownership transferred to the original owners’ descendants. 

When Nicolas’ son, Francois, inherited the property, he opened it as an inn.  The tavern offered lodging, entertainment, socializing, and news to the many travelers pouring into the new Louisiana Purchase territory. Guests could enjoy food and drink in the public room, then sleep in rooms heated by an unusual triangular fireplace.  In later years the building served as a tobacco store and as the first Masonic Lodge in Missouri.

Interior view of Green Tree Tavern showing the triangular fireplace

The grounds of Green Tree Tavern are open year-round.  National Park Service rangers offer free interior tours daily, but registration is required either in person at the park’s Welcome Center (66 Main Street) or by phone at (573) 880-7189.