Ask Rufus: The First Thanksgiving?

 

A Thanksgiving menu suggested in The New Dixie Receipt Book, a 1902 cookbook that belonged  to Sallie Billups of Columbus.

A Thanksgiving menu suggested in The New Dixie Receipt Book, a 1902 cookbook that belonged to Sallie Billups of Columbus. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

Thanksgiving is a holiday filled with history, tradition and food.

 

The earliest local mention of Thanksgiving I have found is in the Nov. 30, 1838, Columbus Southern Argus which reported that the governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire set aside Nov. 29 as a day to be observed as "a day of public Thanksgiving." Then on Jan. 12, 1839, The Columbus Democrat reported that Thanksgiving was celebrated at the "lunatic Asylum in Worcester, Mass, where the Thanksgiving feast consisted of turkey, pumpkin and mince pie followed by a dance."

 

One of the unanswered questions of the history of Thanksgiving is, when was the first celebration that we would call Thanksgiving? Most people, when they think of Thanksgiving, think of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, if Thanksgiving is based on early Europeans in America celebrating their safe arrival or survival with a feast of thanksgiving to God to which Indians who had befriended them were invited, then the Pilgrims in 1621 were far from the first.

 

 

The Spanish who founded St. Augustine, Florida, had their own feast of thanksgiving and invited friendly Indians in 1565. Historian Michael Gannon in his book "The Cross in the Sand" calls that celebration "the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent (European) settlement in the land."

 

There are also two early celebrations of Thanksgiving in Virginia. At Jamestown, when a relief ship arrived in the spring of 1610 after the "starving time" of the previous winter, there was a celebration of thanksgiving for their deliverance. Even more significant as to the history of Thanksgiving was the settlement of the Berkely Company in 1619.

 

That settlement was on the James River below present-day Richmond. The ceremony of thanksgiving that they had was not spontaneous or their own idea. It was a ceremony of thanksgiving to God for their safe arrival that had been set out in the company's charter from London. The charter provided, "that the day of our ship's arrival at the place assigned ... shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God." That was the first officially designated Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 4, 1619.

 

President George Washington had first called for "a Day of Publick Thanksgivin" to be held on Nov. 26, 1789, but it was up to individual states to decide whether to celebrate it and, if so, on what day. The celebration of Thanksgiving in Mississippi in the early and mid-1800s seemed to be at the whim of the governor. On Nov. 20, 1852, a Columbus newspaper reported that Mississippi would celebrate Thanksgiving Day on Oct. 14. In 1854, 23 states officially celebrated Thanksgiving on Nov. 24, but Mississippi was not one of them and did not officially celebrate it at all.

 

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November be set aside as a national day of Thanksgiving. To add a week to the Christmas shopping season, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the date back to the second to last Thursday in November in 1938. Then in 1942, he compromised and set the date as the fourth Thursday in November. It has since remained that date.

 

As big a role as food plays with Thanksgiving, references to special recipes for Thanksgiving foods did not become common in Southern cookbooks until around 1900. It is then that Thanksgiving menus start appearing and the day which had been considered a day of prayer begins to be referred to as a holiday. Interestingly, the celebratory meal was not just a luncheon but included breakfast and supper too.

 

A 1902 cookbook that belonged to Sallie Billups of Columbus provides a suggested menu for Thanksgiving. For breakfast, there would be grapes, oatmeal, sausage, scrambled eggs, browned potatoes, griddle cakes, maple syrup and coffee. For dinner (lunch) there should be oysters on the half shell, mutton broth, celery, turkey stuffed with oysters, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, baked squash, boiled onions with cream sauce, peach pickles, Waldorf salad, cheese wafers, mince pie, pudding, nuts, fruit and coffee. Supper was to be light, consisting of cold turkey, tea biscuits, cottage cheese, sweet tomato pickles, thanksgiving cake, fruit and tea.

 

Oysters and oyster dressing are a tradition at Thanksgiving meals in many Columbus homes. It is a tradition that began more than 185 years ago. It was fall before the water in the Tombigbee rose enough for regular steamboat traffic between Columbus and Mobile, and the weather was cool enough to bring up wet croaker sacks filled with fresh oysters. The celebration of Thanksgiving was at the same time as the first fresh oysters began arriving from the coast, and oysters thus became associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas in Columbus.

 

As to why the Plymouth Thanksgiving is celebrated and not the earlier ones, Gannnon wrote in an article in USA Today: "The English wrote the history and established the traditions. That's life, get over it." Why, then, was Plymouth, Massachusetts rather than Virginia given credit though it too was English?

 

Sarah Hale is the reason. She was born in New Hampshire and became a national figure as editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a popular national magazine. Thanksgiving during the early 1800s was a New England celebration and not much celebrated elsewhere in the country. Beginning in 1846, Hale began a national promotion of Thanksgiving and its New England roots. It was her efforts that popularized Thanksgiving across the country and set its origin in New England.

 

By the way, Hale also wrote a book of poetry, "Poems for our children," which contained her poem, "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

 

 

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]

 

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