From the book, Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History (Facts on File, 1984).
New England’s unique culture—featuring free schools for every child, a religious tradition in which ordinary folk wrestled with complex theological questions and two centuries of self-government—produced in the early nineteenth century a generation of young people uniquely well fitted to fill the demand for educated professionals in the growing urban centers of the republic.
Even as tens of thousands of New Englanders cleared farmland on the western frontier, thousands of their cousins became clerks in the banking houses of New York, shopkeepers in Louisiana, schoolteachers in Virginia, editors in Pennsylvania, lawyers in Ohio, physicians in Missouri and clergymen in Illinois. In every state of the Union, and overwhelmingly so in the new states of the West, New England disproportionately furnished the professional men and women. Congressman John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s great statesman and a Yale man, reflected this dominance when he remarked that he “had seen the time when the natives of Connecticut, together with the graduates of Yale College, in Congress, constituted within five votes of a majority of that body.”
Transplanted Yankees Sow the Seeds of Thanksgiving
In the 1830s and 1840s, this cadre of Yankee editors, teachers, ministers and citizens began a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. There was no central leadership, no coordinated strategy, not even an awareness by each individual that others, elsewhere, were working toward the same end. There was only a simple desire of New Englanders living in other states to celebrate this holiday beloved of childhood in their new homes. When virtually the entire population of a territory was made up of New Englanders, as was the case in Michigan and Iowa, this was a relatively simple proposition. Increasingly, however, New Englanders were in a position to persuade governors of such states as Missouri, Maryland and Mississippi of the desirability of proclaiming Thanksgiving Day.
By the early 1840s, Thanksgiving had spread far beyond the borders of New England. Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine still celebrated the holiday born two centuries earlier along the banks of the Connecticut River, but governors of New York, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana also proclaimed an annual thanksgiving day, and in 1843 Pennsylvania and Missouri joined the growing list. Governor David Rittenhouse Porter proclaimed Thursday, December 21, 1843, Thanksgiving Day for Pennsylvania and, in contrast to the efforts of earlier governors to establish the holiday, his initiative took root.
Reverend Samuel Lowrie of Pittsburgh recalled as an elderly gentleman how he had spent that first Thanksgiving day as a seven-year-old boy:
The part assigned to me was to baste the turkey, which was to be roasting in a reflector oven before the open grate fireplace, while the church service was going on, so as to be ready to be offered to the company promptly when they came from church. . . . The canned oysters that came from Baltimore were properly cooked and served. . . . There were, of course, pumpkin pie and apple butter and, also sweet cider from Grandfather Thompson’s cider mill and press.
The following year there was no Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, but Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed by Governor Francis Shunk for November 27, 1845, and has been observed every year since.
Folks in Pittsburgh learned how to celebrate Thanksgiving the same way their governors learned how to write Thanksgiving proclamations. Though they had never written one before, Yankees showed them how. Pennsylvania governors issued proclamations in the style of governors of Connecticut and Massachusetts, and people celebrated by following the lead of their New England-born preachers, editors, teachers, writers and neighbors.
Louisiana observed Thanksgiving for the first time on Thursday, January 15, 1846. An exultant New England-born resident of Water Proof, Tensas Parish, Louisiana, wrote to relatives in Indiana:
You little thought when telling us of the good Thanksgiving dinner you expected to eat at Mrs. Douglass’ that we too were going to enjoy the privilege of showing our thankfulness for mercies past by partaking of a sumptuous repast. But it is even so, thanks to His excellency Governor Mouton! He has seen the evil of his ways, and has at length repented and announced that this year and ever after the people of Louisiana must celebrate a day of Thanksgiving. The day set apart is the fifteenth of January 1846.
We are going to try to have a real Yankee dinner, pumpkin pies and everything to match.
The promise of Thanksgiving Day “this year and ever after” proved true; Louisiana celebrated Thanksgiving on a Thursday in November or December from November 26, 1846, on. Thanksgiving Day, December 9, 1847, was especially joyful, coming just six days after General Zachary Taylor led a triumphal parade of soldiers fresh from victory in the Mexican War through the streets of New Orleans.
Governor Thomas Reynolds proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day in Missouri for December 3, 1843, specifying as did many governors, that he addressed his constituents “without any distinction of sect, denomination or creed.” William J. Hammond, a newspaperman working for the Missouri Republican, described the day in a letter to his mother:
It was the first Thanksgiving Day ever observed in this State, and you may suppose the most was made of it. . . . There was all sorts of frolicking. . . .
In the morning the . . . Churches were thrown open for religious exercises, and all were crowded to overflowing. The afternoon . . . was observed by the gathering together of all the members of families … as I had no fireside to go to . . . nor no relation to talk with … the afternoon was spent by me walking around like a lost sheep waiting to be gathered into the fold. But the afternoon would not last always, and night came, and with it brought my time for fun. There were Methodist Sewing Societies, Presbyterian Tea Parties, and Balls in abundance and it was some time before I could make up my mind which to attend. I finally concluded to stick to first principles and go to a Methodist Sewing Society.
The one which I attended was held at Mrs. McKee’s. … At an early hour quite a company was assembled. … All passed very pleasantly till about 8 o’clock, when Miss Mary took a particular spite against the Piano, and commenced hammering it, with vocal accompaniments, which frightened me considerably and I sloped. The evening not being far advanced, I . . . [gave] the Presbyterians a pop by going to their Tea Party; they had a splendid supper, good speeches were made by several gentlemen, and I regretted that I did not go there first as I never spent my time more agreeably.
Missouri’s first Thanksgiving was a success, but Thanksgiving did not become an official annual holiday in Missouri until 1855. Between 1843 and 1855, some governors proclaimed the holiday, others omitted to do so. An editorial from the December 7,1849, Liberty, Missouri, Weekly Tribune scolded: “We observe that many of the States have long since appointed certain days for thanksgiving, and yet the Governor of Missouri is mum on the subject.” Governor Austin King was negligent only in 1849; the following year he proclaimed Thursday, December 12, as Thanksgiving Day.
Such erratic proclamations were common. Thanksgiving Day might come in September, October, November, December or even January, and in many states it was some years proclaimed, some years neglected, according to the whim of the governor. This irregularity of dates had a single, distinct advantage: it was often possible to partake of a turkey dinner with cousins in New York on Thanksgiving Day and still be able to ladle cranberry sauce onto sliced turkey with cousins in Vermont on Thanksgiving Day a week later. But the practical-minded, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale chief among them, found this variety untidy and confusing.
Mrs. Hale’s Campaign
Sarah Josepha Hale was a remarkable woman. Born near Newport, New Hampshire, in 1788 to a revolutionary war veteran and his wife, Sarah Hale was left a poor widow with five children to support in an era when no profession open to women enabled them to earn an adequate living. Mrs. Hale determined to support her family with her pen and wrote Northwood; or Life North and South a novel that set out to demonstrate the superiority of democratic, virtuous, rural New England by contrasting it with decadent, slaveholding southern society. One entire chapter was devoted to a description of Thanksgiving Day in the hero’s New Hampshire farm family and to the author’s opinion that Thanksgiving Day “should be the same as the Fourth of July, a national holiday.” To Mrs. Hale, more than to any other individual, goes the credit for making it so.
The success of Northwood led to a job as editor of the Ladies’ Magazine in Boston, one of the earliest women’s magazines and the first to be edited by a woman. In 1837, the Ladies’ Magazine merged with the Lady’s Book of Philadelphia, and Mrs. Hale became editor of the new Lady’s Book and Magazine, published by L. A. Godey. In 1841, she moved her home and editorial offices to Philadelphia.
Godey’s Lady’s Book was, for the next two decades, the most widely distributed periodical of any kind in the United States. It was read in New York town houses, on southern plantations and in cabins on the western frontier. Not precisely comparable to any single periodical today, the Lady’s Book under Mrs. Hale’s direction exercised an influence of the magnitude of Seventeen, Redbook, Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens combined. When Godey’s printed a new bonnet style, milliners from coast to coast fashioned copies for their customers. Godey’s published plans for “model cottages,” and carpenters from Baltimore to Portland built houses “like the picture in the Lady’s Book.” Hers was a powerful position, and Mrs. Hale chose to use it to make Thanksgiving a national holiday.
Sarah Hale began her campaign to make the last Thursday in November the national Thanksgiving Day in 1846. Whether she was inspired by the recent gubernatorial decision to make Thanksgiving a holiday in Pennsylvania, or whether she in some way influenced the governor to proclaim the holiday, is impossible to say. Old issues of the Lady’s Book do show that she waged an unremitting campaign for a nationwide Thanksgiving holiday beginning that year.
Each year Mrs. Hale wrote a rhapsodic editorial on the desirability of a national Thanksgiving Day. November issues of the Lady’s Book featured Thanksgiving poetry and stories of families reunited on Thanksgiving Day. Household advice columns carried directions on how to stuff a turkey and bake a mince pie. Mrs. Hale intended to tell her readers about Thanksgiving and teach them to celebrate it until the holiday became as familiar a household custom in Mississippi and Nebraska as it was in New Hampshire.
Thanksgiving Takes Root
In addition to her editorials, Mrs. Hale wrote letters. Each summer the governor of every state and territory received a letter from her urging them to proclaim the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. Her requests, and the similar efforts of others, fell on fertile soil. America, always a God-fearing nation, was experiencing a ground swell of religious fervor in the 1840s and 1850s. Protestant churches, leading institutions in the culture of the time, favored officially proclaimed days of thanksgiving.
The Presbyterian church played an especially important role in introducing Thanksgiving to new states. Presbyterian state synods commonly proclaimed days of thanksgiving for Presbyterians in states where the governors did not, and sometimes formally petitioned the governor to proclaim Thanksgiving Day. Presbyterian synods began to issue Thanksgiving proclamation after the Revolution, but Presbyterian enthusiasm for Thanksgiving was augmented by the odd circumstance that when New England Congresgationlists moved west, they usually became Presbyterians.
The old New England doctrine of congregational autonomy proved unequal to the task of establishing churches throughout the rapidly expanding frontier. Presbyterianism was doctrinally compatible with Congregationalism, and had the advantage of a strong, centralized hierarchy. Presbyterian churches with New England-bred congregations led the way in establishing Thanksgiving Day in new states, but churches of other denominations also endorsed the holiday, ministers, as a rule, being in favor of anything that brought people into church.
Thanksgiving had the additional advantage of being introduced to people who, while not accustomed to celebrate it, were at least familiar with it as a New England custom, much as Americans today recognize Mardi Gras as a customary holiday in New Orleans. Young Rutherford B. Hayes, sent East to a Connecticut prep school in 1838, wrote home to his family in Ohio:
Thanksgiving was the 30th of November. I suppose you have heard of the richness of the dinner in this Yankee Country on that day; but it beat everything all hallow I ever saw. Our dessert alone, I should think, would cost fifty dollars … we had things [I] never dreamed of there being such. . . . There are divers things in this blue country I like better than Ohio; for example, Thanksgiving dinner.
The holiday that appealed to the future president appealed to other Americans as well, and a steadily increasing number of governors issued Thanksgiving proclamations for their states.
Jonn Munn, a Connecticut Yankee by birth, ran a store and a bank in Canton, Mississippi, when the first Thanksgiving Day ever observed in that state was proclaimed for November 25, 1847. He recorded the event in his journal:
An unusual scene has been witnessed in our village and state this day. By appointment of Governor Brown it was selected as a day of “Thanksgiving”—and for the first time in this state has such a date been set apart for such purpose. This good old New England custom was a long time confined to those states—in time it was adopted by the Western and middle states and for the last few years had gradually come to be observed in many of the Southern states, and on this day and this year about two thirds of the states unite in rendering thanks for the mercies and benefits received during the year now drawing to a close. There is something grateful and pleasant to the feelings of any man of right thought and mind in contemplating such a scene, but how much more so to one who was bom on the soil of New England as he sees state after state adopting so advisable a custom. Far away from that birthplace, the observance of the day here brings a flood of early recollections. . . .
In our village the day has been observed in a manner that would have given ample satisfaction to the most rigid observer of such days in the times of its earliest appointment. All business was suspended and quiet prevailed in our streets. There was a general attendance at church to listen to the Rev. Mr. Halsy of Jackson, and seldom have I listened to a more interesting and appropriate sermon. It was well adapted for a people who were assembled for the first time for such a purpose, and those listening attentively could not but have been instructed in the objects of those who first established the custom and the reasons that demand its observance.
New Englanders were not shy about instructing their fellow Americans in the reasons that demanded the observance of Thanksgiving. They were, in fact, accustomed to arrogate to themselves the prerogative of instructing their fellow citizens on whatever topic they chose. Boston was the cultural center of early nineteenth-century America. Virtually every reform movement of the era was born either in new England proper or in the New England-settled areas of upper New York State. Abolition, women’s suffrage, the movement for free public schools, the campaign to establish public insane asylums, and America’s first health food crusade were among the movements led by Yankees. A people who felt free to tell their reluctant fellow citizens to educate their children, free their slaves and give women the vote were unfettered in their eagerness to suggest that other regions join their home states in celebrating Thanksgiving Day.
Governor Thomas Drew proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day in Arkansas for December 9, 1847. Newspapers throughout the state reprinted the governor’s proclamation. The Arkansas Gazette also printed a poem written for the occasion in its December 2 issue:
Th’ appointment’s gone forth from the Halls of the State,
Inviting all ranks to the Church to repair,
And the bountiful goodness of GOD celebrate,
In the rapture of praise and the fervor of prayer . . .
Thanksgiving Day was officially proclaimed in California even before that state was admitted to the Union, and observed by individual Californians well before it was officially proclaimed. A New England forty-niner noted in his journal that, “We celebrated Thanksgiving Day (or what we supposed to be so) . . . by an extra dinner. …” In the burgeoning cities of the territory, the first official Thanksgiving Day, November 29, 1849, was celebrated with somewhat greater formality.
Since California was not admitted to the Union until 1850, that first Thanksgiving proclamation was issued over the signature of Military Governor General Riley, at the urging of his New York-born adjutant. Although the proclamation was issued in both Spanish and English, Spanish inhabitants seem to have ignored the holiday, probably wondering what all the fuss was about. The day was observed by eastern immigrants with services in the handful of churches that then existed. Reverend Albert Williams and the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of San Francisco, not yet having constructed a church building, held their worship service in a tent. In Monterey, Reverend Samuel H. Willey commented on the day in his journal:
A clear, bright, beautiful day. But only a beginning to Thanksgiving Day keeping in Monterey, where so small a proportion of the inhabitants care for any Protestant observance. There are fewer Americans in this town than were expected to be here when the rains came. But who ever saw Americans leave places where they can make money. … A few attend worship and seem to remember their education and principles even in California.
Undaunted by the meagerness of the turnout, Reverend Willey held services and preached a Thanksgiving sermon, a sermon of gratitude for the abundant resources and bright future of the territory, that nevertheless expressed a wistful longing for old New England.
Though very few can procure the luxuries and delicacies or even the substantial comforts of life to compare with the loaded tables in New England homes, the very absence of these things will make the sacred memories of the day more vivid in their minds.
The mention of Thanksgiving calls up each one’s home, with its antique structure, the venerable halls, rooms, windows all as we left them years ago. The same elms spread out their branches to shade them. The little brook comes leaping down over the stones merrily as ever. Though thousands of miles away, it seems as if we could hear the measured tick of the old clock in the comer.
Reverend Willey was not alone in his homesick ruminations. Although those eastern families that had set up housekeeping prepared Thanksgiving dinners as traditional as resources allowed and invited their acquaintances among the many single men of the community, Thanksgiving Day was a lonely time for many pioneers. Reverend R. F. Putnam confided to his diary in 1863:
Thanksgiving, which was here as in Massachusetts, on the 26th of November, was a solemn and unsatisfactory day. In the morning we had services at church, but the congregation was very small. After the services we returned to our homes and spent the remainder of the day in quietness. We thought of home and longed to be there.
Our dinner was plain and simple, for we had no heart for a sumptuous repast. We had been invited to dine out, but declined all such invitations, preferring to remain alone and think of the dear ones who gathered around the Thanksgiving table at home.
We felt a sense of relief when the day was over. Holidays in California are to us homesick days of which we have an instinctive dread. Commonly, they are the gloomiest days of the year.
Granted that Reverend Putnam seems to have been a gloomier character than the average Californian, his holiday depression was at least partially induced by circumstances. The good reverend’s Christmas entry for the same year was cheerful enough, noting the attendance of a “large congregation” at morning services, but Thanksgiving was a newly transplanted holiday, with shallow roots in the West and South. Years would pass before Thanksgiving was as joyfully and spontaneously celebrated in other states as in New England.
As long as the western states remained a young land of new immigrants, one of the fixed customs of the day was for as many citizens as could manage the trip to return East to spend the holiday with family. Even after the railroads came through, the trip from Washington State or Minnesota back to New York or Connecticut was long and expensive, but almost everyone wanted to go home at least once before the old folks would be there no longer, and every year some westerners made the trip.
Among New Englanders settled in the cities of the mid-Atlantic states, the pilgrimage home to Thanksgiving became an annual ritual. The custom was acknowledged by Horace Greeley, Vermont-born editor of the New York Herald Tribune, who printed this poem addressed “To All New Englanders” in 1846.
Come home to Thanksgiving! Dear children, come home! From the Northland and the South, from West and the East, Where’er ye are resting, where’er ye roam, Come back to this sacred and annual feast.
From Greeley’s perspective, and from that of many Americans, Thanksgiving was a holiday that Yankees went home to New England to enjoy. Franklin Benjamin Hough, a New Yorker who wrote a history of Proclamations for Thanksgiving in 1858, estimated that upwards of 10,000 people left New York City each year to return to New England for Thanksgiving. The holiday these pilgrims sought on Vermont farms and in Connecticut villages was the traditional one of family gatherings and church services, turkey dinners and village socials.
It was the New England model of Thanksgiving Day that Sarah Hale knew, loved and promoted in her magazine. Each year, along with Thanksgiving poems, recipes and editorial admonitions directing governors to proclaim the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day, short stories about Thanksgiving appeared. Many a story featured a family gathered on Thanksgiving Day in a spacious old New England home when, miraculously, just as the family prepared to say grace, a son who had gone to sea and was presumed drowned, or who had gone west and not been heard from for many years, or who had stormed out in anger a decade before would reappear to great rejoicing and—thanksgiving.
Alternate plots featured spoiled city youngsters who learned virtues of charity, humility and gratitude by visiting country cousins for Thanksgiving, or girls who met their true loves while at home on Thanksgiving Day. Sometimes these girls wanted to be in New York at the opera or at a ball, but they were dragged off to the country by old-fashioned parents and, while rusticating, met young men handsomer, wealthier and more virtuous by far then their city beaus.
Mrs. Hale was joined in her campaign to make Thanksgiving a holiday familiar to the nation by the popular pictorial magazines of the day. These oversized periodicals, featuring pen and ink drawings of news events, interesting places and famous people, found in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Day” the perfect feature for their November issues. Magazine articles were instrumental in teaching Americans how to celebrate Thanksgiving Day at a time when growing numbers of governors were proclaiming the holiday for their constituents.
Governor John Gaines issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation for Oregon Territory in 1852, stating that he did so, “In conformity to a usage in most of the States of the Union,” and this was true. By that year, the Northeast and Midwest, along with many parts of the South and several territories, celebrated Thanksgiving as an annual holiday. Oregon did not have another Thanksgiving until it achieved statehood in 1859—and a most begrudgingly proclaimed Thanksgiving it was. The economy was bad, Indians were attacking and burning settlements in the southern part of the state and the threat of civil war hung over the nation. “For what,” complained the Oregon Statesman, “should the people of Oregon especially give thanks?”
Seventy-six Oregon City women knew the answer: the time for Thanksgiving had come and there were always sufficient blessings to encourage a God-fearing people to offer thanks. Accordingly, they petitioned Governor John Whiteaker for a Thanksgiving proclamation. In response, he issued one of the most niggardly proclamations on record: “Be it known that in conformity with the wishes of many citizens of Oregon,” not, apparently, including his own, “I appoint and set apart Thursday, the 29th of December, 1859, as a day to be kept for PUBLIC THANKSGIVING, to be observed throughout the state in such manner as the good people thereof may deem appropriate.”
Governor Whiteaker did not list any of the many causes for which the people of Oregon might give thanks, nor suggest, as other governors usually did, that they should suspend their regular activities and spend the day at prayer and family gatherings. But the people of Oregon knew how to celebrate Thanksgiving. They prayed and feasted and enjoyed the holiday that soon became a regular part of Oregon life.
Nebraskan editors appear to have been cast from a more optimistic mold than the Oregonian variety, for when the state’s first Thanksgiving Day was proclaimed, Nebraska’s only newspaper, the Bellevue Palladium, commented that, “Although we have, as in all new countries, comparatively little to be thankful for, we have sufficient to inspire our gratitude and blessing.” The editor of the Bellevue Palladium noted that he was a guest “at an excellent Thanksgiving dinner,” but we do not know whether anyone thought to invite the grumpy editor of the Oregon Statesman to Thanksgiving dinner.
Acting Governor Thomas Cuming set the first Thanksgiving Day in Nebraska on November 30, 1854, just six months after Nebraska Territory was established by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The settlers were Yankees moving into the new territory from nearby Iowa and other northern states, and they would keep their old New England holiday in this new free-soil territory. The introduction of Thanksgiving to Kansas would prove more controversial and bloody.
Settlers in territories where Thanksgiving was not yet a hoiiday grew impatient. “November passed and week by week New Englanders looked for the announcement of their ancient and beloved festival,” wrote Mrs. Isaac Atwater, a Minnesota pioneer, “but even the sacred last Thursday went by without it, and dismay and homesickness filled all hearts. Our good governor must have been of Scotch or Dutch pedigree to have overlooked a duty of such importance; but at last a hint was given him, a brief proclamation was forthcoming, and the day duly celebrated.”
On that first Thanksgiving Day, December 26, 1850, St. Paul was a frontier village of about 225 buildings, and St. Anthony was the next largest town with but 115 houses; indeed, the entire Minnesota Territory, including both Dakotas as far as the Missouri River, held only 6,000 settlers. New and sparsely populated though the territory was, a “magnificent ball” was held in St. Paul in a hall decorated with “paintings, pictures, transparencies and chandeliers in a style of superb elegance,” while the three hotels in town “each served elaborate dinners of buffalo, bear, and venison.”
Such gaudy celebrations fit badly with our more stereotypic images of sturdy pioneers leading the way west in buckskin shirts. But typical immigrants to a young western city had not come west to enjoy the simple life—they had come in the hope of getting very rich, very fast. Founders of town sites surveyed land and laid out grid-patterned streets on acres of vacant prairie, hoping that theirs would be a new Chicago, making them overnight millionaries by land speculation alone. Even before their fortunes were made, these would-be millionaires aspired to live in style. Thanksgiving entertainments were arranged to demonstrate that society in the territories lacked none of the refinement of Philadelphia or Boston. An 1854 visitor to tiny Excelsior, Minnesota, recorded his pleasure in the Thanksgiving exercises held by the local lyceum during which ladies and gentlemen offered “addresses appropriate to the occasion” and “music upon the piano,” all of which, in the visitor’s flattering opinion, compared well with “the most selected gatherings in many portions of the east.”
Governors of the young Minnesota Territory proclaimed Thanksgiving every year, a practice regularized by the first legislature after Minnesota became a state in 1858. A statute was enacted providing that, “The governor shall by proclamation set apart one day each year as a day of solemn and public thanksgiving to Almighty God, for his blessings to us as a state and a nation.’’
Edward J. Pond recalled his family’s simple celebration of Minnesota’s first Thanksgiving in their home at Chief Shakopee’s village on the shore of Lake Harriet, where his father was a missionary to the Indians. “I know that we had venison we got from the Indians. We had cranberries too.” High-bush cranberries grew wild in Minnesota; picked and boxed, they earned important cash for the early settlers. “We always had pumpkin pies. Then we had bread and butter and that was about all.”
The simple fare of the Pond family is probably representative of what Minnesota farm families ate, both on Thanksgiving and on other days. Simple food, hard work and faith in God marked these pioneers, circumstances that led Reverend Edward D. Neill, in his well-received sermon on that first Thanksgiving Day in Minnesota Territory to a congregation of 38 worshipers, to compare “the infancy of our favored territory with that of the Puritan colonies.”
Settlers throughout the West compared themselves with the Puritan colonizers of New England as self-consciously as New England settlers had once compared themselves with the biblical children of Israel. Perhaps no group of pioneers took these comparisons more to heart than the 5,000 Latter-Day Saints whom Brigham Young led over the Rocky Mountains in 1847 to settle the Great Salt Basin of Utah. No crops had ever been raised in this desert with its late spring and early autumn frosts; many believed that none could be grown here. That first harvest, then, was like the first harvest of the Pilgrims at Plymouth—it proved that land could be farmed and settlements planted where no Englishmen had lived before. To these pilgrims, driven from home by religious prejudice, it meant new homes and the opportunity to worship in the wilderness according to their own beliefs.
When the harvest was gathered, Utah, or Deseret as the first settlers called it, held a celebration very like the 1621 harvest Thanksgiving at Plymouth.
On the tenth of August [ 1848] we held a public feast under a bowery [bower built of poles and branches] in the center of our fort. This was called a harvest feast ; we partook of a rich variety of bread, beef, butter, cheese, cakes, pastry, green com, melons, and almost every variety of vegetables. Large sheaves of wheat, rye, barley, oats, and other productions were hoisted on poles for public exhibition, and there was prayer and thanksgiving, congratulations, songs, speeches, music, dancing, smiling faces and merry hearts. In short, it was a great day with the people of these valleys, and long to be remembered by those who had suffered and waited anxiously for the results of a first effort to redeem the interior deserts of America, and to make her hitherto unknown solitudes “blossom like a rose.”
The Mormon pioneers who founded Utah were from many states and from England, but their leader, Brigham Young, was a son of Vermont. Before long, he began to issue Thanksgiving proclamations as other governors did, but in a style unique to the Latter-Day Saints. In one proclamation, issued in 1851, Governor Young gave thanks for the harvest, good health, general prosperity and peace, but went on to incorpoate uniquely Mormon concepts of priesthood and to emphasize such Christian virtues as brotherhood and charity.
Territory of Utah Proclamation For a day of Praise and Thanksgiving It having pleased the Father of all good to make known His mind and will to the children of men, in these last days; and through the ministrations of his angels, to restore the Holy Priesthood unto the sons of Adam . . . and influencing them to flow together from the four quarters of the earth, to a land of peace and health; . . . reserved of old in the councils of eternity for the purposes to which it is now appropriated; a land choice above all others; . . .
I, Brigham Young, Governor of the Territory aforesaid, in response to the time-honored custom of our forefathers at Plymouth Rock . . . DO PROCLAIM … A Day of Praise and Thanksgiving … in honor of the God of Abraham . . . And I recommend to all the good citizens of Utah . . . that they rise early in the morning . . . and wash their bodies with pure water; that all men attend to their flocks and herds with carefulness; . . . while the women are preparing the best of food for their households … ask the Father to bless your food; and when you have filled the plates of your household, partake with them, with rejoicing and thanksgiving. … I also request of all good and peaceful citizens, that they refrain from all evil thinking, speaking, and acting on that day; that no one be offended by his neighbor . . . that all may cease their quarrels and starve the lawyers. … I further request, that when the day has been spent in doing good; in dealing your bread, your butter, your beef, your pork, your turkeys, your molasses, and the choicest of all the products of the valleys and mountains … to the poor; . . . that you end the day … on the same principle that you commenced it . . . preparing for celestial glory.
One after another, the western states proclaimed Thanksgiving, welcoming, as the Iowa City Standard put it in 1844, “the good old Pilgrim custom to our midst.” The widespread acceptance of the idea that the Pilgrims founded this nation at Plymouth Rock and that Thanksgiving was worthy of adoption by every state in the Union because it was first observed at Plymouth was a triumph of Yankee persuasiveness. English colonists with a variety of motivations founded several colonies along the Atlantic seaboard in the 1600s. Jamestown, of course, was the first to become permanently established. Pennsylvania was the true haven of religious freedom. But it is the footfall at Plymouth Rock that American schoolchildren are taught to venerate.
The landing of the Pilgrim Fathers did not become the honored myth of our nation’s birth because of a realistic understanding of who these people were—after all, they themselves were intolerant religious fanatics—but because of who their descendants became. Virginia grew into a prosperous, hierarchical colony led by aristocratic slave owners. Massachusetts became an almost pure democracy, inhabited by freeholding, self-sufficient farmers. Virginia gave the country great statesmen. New England produced teachers, ministers, lawyers, men and women of letters and merchants. The New England ideals of free education and respect for learning, citizen participation in government, equality of opportunity and centrality of religious faith became the ideals of a nation. For these reasons Plymouth, and not Jamestown, became our national myth.
When the republic was young, the creation of a national mythology was a deeply felt necessity. Washington, the father of his country, assumed the status nearly of a demigod. His portrait hung in parlors and schoolrooms, adulatory biographies sold tens of thousands of copies and myths grew up around his every action and utterance. Lafayette, returning in 1824 to visit the nation in whose revolutionary army he had served as a young man, was hailed by worshipful crowds of thousands. The states needed heroes, myths and legends to make them one nation. To fill this need, New England offered the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. Here was a third holiday for the nation to celebrate together along with Washington’s birthday and the Fourth of July. Here was a new constellation of mythic Pilgrim heroes to place in the firmament alongside Washington and Lafayette. Just as Thanksgiving had been created to fill a need for holidays in Puritan New England, so it was adopted by western and southern states that needed national myths and nationwide holidays.