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!

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.

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.

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.

Happy Birthday, Ulysses!!!

How do you fit 200 candles on a birthday cake?  Tomorrow – April 27, 2022 – marks the 200th anniversary of Ulysses Grant’s birth.  This notable bicentennial will be commemorated with events, activities and exhibits at dozens of locations across the nation.  Our partner park Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site will offer programs for all tastes and ages in the coming months.  Whether you’re a history buff, a military veteran, a food lover or a kid, you’re sure to find a fun and interesting way to celebrate the former president’s 200th year.

The park is devoting the entire day and evening of April 27 to an extended birthday celebration:

  • There will be presentations on Grant’s life in the visitor center theater. 
  • Food historian Suzanne Corbett will deliver a program on 19th century cakes and other desserts in the dining room of White Haven, the house where Ulysses lived with his wife Julia and her family. 
  • Visitors can make and send cards to residents of Missouri veterans’ homes letting them know about Grant’s appreciation of military veterans. 
  • You can pick up a “Flat Grant” handout at the park’s visitor center to color and take with you on your travels. Share your selfies with Grant on social media as you travel with #USGrant2ndWorldTour.
  • Kids can explore all aspects of Grant’s life with a special Junior Ranger activity book and receive a commemorative Junior Ranger badge. 
  • In the evening, the Independent Silver Band will conduct a one-hour concert on the park grounds, beginning at 6:30 pm. This program is presented in partnership with the Ulysses S. Grant Association and Mississippi State University.

Credit: Curt Fields

Other bicentennial activities planned by the park include a visit by the nation’s premiere Grant impersonator, Curt Fields, on Tuesday May 17th.  Throughout the summer, park staff will offer special themed tours of the historic White Haven estate, gallery walks, touch tables, and facilitated dialogue programs inside the park’s museum.  Check the park’s list of bicentennial events for more details. To learn about events elsewhere in the U.S. that will commemorate the Grant Bicentennial, visit the Ulysses S. Grant Association’s website.

Finally, if you’d like a keepsake of this important bicentennial, pick up this unique brass ornament at our bookstore when you visit the park. It features a likeness of Grant beneath his well-known saying “Let us have peace.”  You can also order the ornament from our online store.  Quantities are limited!

How Many National Park Sites Have YOU Visited?

The National Park Service system currently includes 423 sites throughout the United States and its territories.  These range from national monuments and battlefields to national historic sites and recreation areas to national rivers and seashores. 

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t visited the majority of these places (most of us haven’t!). But luckily, National Park Week is just around the corner – a perfect time to add to your NPS “life list.”

National Park Week is an annual celebration jointly hosted by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation to encourage everyone to discover our nation’s diverse historic, natural, and cultural treasures.  This year, the week runs from April 16 through 24.  Parks across the country will host a variety of special programs, events, and digital experiences, including National Junior Ranger Day for kids on Saturday April 23.  You can find out more about programs and themes you might be interested in by going here.  

Another bonus for park visitors during National Park Week – entrance fees are waived at all parks on Saturday April 16.  (Other 2022 free fee days can be found here).  Luckily, there are never entry fees at JNPA’s partner parks but each of them would be glad to see you in April, or any time!

If you’re planning to visit any of the 63 parks that have “national park” in their name, you’ll want a copy of National Geographic’s national park guide as well as the Passport to Your National Parks, which not only contains park information but allows you to collect the passport stamps from every park you visit. 

New Leader at U.S. Grant National Historic Site

We’re excited to welcome Nathan Wilson as the new superintendent at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.  The National Park Service announced his appointment, effective this month.  Wilson is a 17-year veteran of NPS and has a wide range of experience working in historical parks, mostly in the Midwest.  We recently caught up with him to learn why he’s excited about his new role at our partner park.

Why did you start working for the National Park Service?

I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors and parks as places to reflect, learn, and recreate. As a student in the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism program at the University of Missouri, I became interested in public land management and the various agencies tasked with overseeing them. I found the National Park Service mandate to protect and preserve our nation’s most significant resources – for everyone’s enjoyment – to be particularly special. That’s what led me to pursue a career working for the agency. I was fortunate to receive an internship at Fort Smith National Historic Site as I was finishing my undergraduate degree and that opportunity turned out to be a springboard for my career with the NPS.  

What is particularly special about U.S. Grant National Historic Site, or why should someone visit?

I think the story we tell in conjunction with the physical resources at the site make for a very impactful experience. The period of Grant’s life spent here in St. Louis is often overlooked in comparison to his time served as Union general and president. However, it was critical in shaping and influencing the values, character, and identity that we associate with this American hero today. Visitors get a meaningful glimpse into this part of his life when they visit our park.

What’s your favorite part of the job, or what do you hope to accomplish at ULSG?

The park staff does an incredible job of interpreting the Grant story and administering and caring for the resources here at the park. The level and variety of skill among our team is impressive and inspiring to me, and collaborating with them is a highlight of the job. I’m truly honored by the opportunity to take on this leadership role and look forward to continued collaboration with this amazing team during Grant’s bicentennial year and into the future.

What’s your favorite activity to do at your park?

I really enjoy the historic structures and cultural landscape here at the park. The restoration and rehabilitation work that took place at White Haven in the 1990s transformed the park structures and makes for a great historic preservation experience, and the landscape provides a nice greenspace to enjoy the outdoors in suburban St. Louis.   

Your park’s best kept secret is…?

Not necessarily a secret but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to our park volunteers. We’ve got over 20 volunteers here at Grant who help us with everything from visitor services and tours to cultural resource management and museum operations. These dedicated team members provide a tremendous amount of support to our park and are a major contributor to the high-quality visitor experience we provide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. 

Honoring our Presidents

Just in time for Presidents’ Day (February 21), JNPA has a wide array of cool gift items for that POTUS* geek in your life.  What else would you expect from a non-profit with stores at three national parks that honor U.S. Presidents:  Gateway Arch National Park, Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site, and Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site?

Gateway Arch National Park is a memorial to President Thomas Jefferson and his role in greatly expanding the borders of the United States.

JNPA greatly respects Jefferson’s accomplishments, as evidenced by the many books and statues we sell at The Arch Store.  But we also sell a few more whimsical items that still honor our third president, like this stately bobblehead and  mini-building block set.  (We trust Mr. Jefferson doesn’t object to our…ahem…taking “liberties” with his likeness.)


President Bill Clinton spent his early boyhood years in a comfortable two-story frame house in Hope, Arkansas, an experience that he says helped develop his broad views on race relations, social justice, and public service.  Our book on Clinton’s early life features numerous photos of the home as well as of the young future president. 

Credit: Clinton Foundation

An image of the home is featured on this handsome earthenware mug.  And of course, we also sell a fun bobblehead version of the 42nd president.


Credit: David Newmann

If it’s President Ulysses S. Grant you’re interested in, JNPA offers numerous items commemorating both Grant and his wife Julia.  From books to sturdy mugs to fun kids’ products, there’s something for everyone.  And don’t forget our popular bobblehead version of our 18th president.

*President of The United States

“My Dearest Julia and my love for her are ever in my mind…”

What do you know about Ulysses S. Grant?  Victorious commander of the Union troops in the U.S. Civil War:  Check.  Eighteenth President of the United States:  Yep.  Devoted lover:  Huh??

President Grant and his wife Julia Dent Grant sustained a long love affair throughout their lives. What better love story to share in time for Valentine’s Day?

Ulysses and Julia’s romance began at White Haven, the Missouri plantation owned by Julia’s parents.  In 1843, while stationed at a nearby Army barracks, the young Lieutenant Grant visited the farm where his West Point roommate had grown up.  He was immediately charmed by Julia and often made the 12-mile ride to White Haven to visit her several times a week. 

Unfortunately for the young couple, their courtship was marked by long periods of separation while Grant was on assignment for the Army.  So they turned to letter writing as their sole method of declaring their love.  Although sadly no correspondence from Julia to Grant survives to this day, we are lucky to have numerous letters that Grant sent to his beloved, and his devotion to her is obvious.

When Grant was stationed in Louisiana and Texas in preparation for the coming war with Mexico, he wrote Julia in 1844 “of the depth and sincerity of my love for you.”  Writing from Texas the following year, Grant told her “for my own part I would sacrifice everything Earthly to make my Dear Julia my own forever.”

Even during the height of battle, his feelings for her were as strong as ever: “…in the midst of grape and musket shots, my Dearest Julia and my love for her are ever in my mind.”  And in that same letter, Grant assures her “I am getting very tired of this war, and particularly impatient of being separated from one I love so much, but I think before I see another birth day I shall see Julia, and if she says so, be able to call her my own Dear for ever.” Grant’s wish eventually came true.  The couple was married at White Haven in 1848. 

Though Julia was able to travel with Ulysses to some of his Army postings, they still remained apart for much of their early marriage.  It is thought that these ongoing separations was one reason Captain Ulysses Grant resigned his commission from the Army in 1854 and returned to White Haven to be with his wife and young children.

To learn more about the love story of Julia and Ulysses, watch A Thousand Kisses, the short video about their early life that JNPA helped produce for the National Park Service.

You can also read many of Grant’s letters to his wife in My Dearest Julia, available in our online store or at our bookstore at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.