Thanksgiving in America

The Pilgrims did not launch Thanksgiving in America. For more than three centuries, Thanksgiving was a sporadic affair proclaimed off and on by various governors and churches for a variety of special occasions ranging from general prosperity to victories over the Indians and the British. In the early 19th century there was still little mention of an American Christmas and only casual notice of Thanksgiving. Not until 1863 did President Abraham Lincoln, embroiled in the Civil War and anxious to promote national unity, proclaim Thanksgiving a national holiday. Before that, George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation on October 3, 1789, and James Madison proclaimed January 12, 1815 as a day of prayer that the War of 1812 might end soon and peace be restored.

A decade earlier, Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, declared that “No citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” Yet the turkey did not become a Thanksgiving dish outside New England until after 1800, and Thanksgiving itself often passed unobserved in many parts of the country as late as 1900.

Even in New England the turkey was not singled out immediately as the official holiday bird. A diary account of a Thanksgiving dinner in New England in 1779 mentions in the following order “a fine red Deer,” “huge Chines of Roast Pork,” “a big Roast Turkey,” “a Goose & two big Pigeon Pasties.” President Andrew Jackson’s November 29, 1835 Thanksgiving proclamation thanked God for “the bountiful supply of wildlife with which Thou has blessed our land; for the turkeys that gobble in our forests.” But Jackson did not specifically link turkeys with Thanksgiving.

However, by 1857, the turkey had become a traditional part of the Thanksgiving holiday in New England. In that year, the English author of Life and Liberty in America, Charles Mackay, proclaimed the turkey “the great event of the day. As roast beef and plum pudding are upon Christmas-day in Old England, so is the turkey upon Thanksgiving-day among the descendants of the Puritans in New England.”

From Karen Davis, PhD, More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality, pp. 52-54. Available from United Poultry Concerns $14.95.