Thanksgiving in America: 1800-1860 (Part 1)


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth”
Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1935)
Quote from The New York Herald, December 14, 1843

(Public Domain)

From the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth to November 26, 1789 when President George Washington called for national prayers of thanks and gratitude for the end of the Revolutionary War, Thanksgiving has been celebrated and yes - even debated throughout the years. A tradition that began in New England quickly spread throughout the northeast and by the birth of the 19th century it was spreading out to the new frontier areas of Ohio and Michigan. Thanksgiving days were celebrated by each state with each state deciding when the harvest festival would be observed. The dates ranged anywhere from October to January.

It was the 3rd President of the United States Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) that first expressed some concern about a national call to prayer coming from the government. The main writer of the letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in which he cites the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”, was sensitive to the idea of government prayer proclamations. He wrote the Association:

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;’ thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State.” {2}

The man who coined the phrase “separation of church and state” was not against days of thanksgiving and prayer he only preferred they not be dictated by the government. And so it went in the early to mid-19th Century that Thanksgiving was practiced as a celebration at the end of harvest that was determined by each individual state.​


Harper’s Weekly - Coming to Thanksgiving Dinner
Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
Published November 27, 1858

(Public Domain)

In the December 10, 1841 edition of “The North American and Daily Advertiser” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it reported New York, New Jersey, all of New England even Savannah held a Thanksgiving festival. Pennsylvania declined. They reported:

“This time-honored festival is now observed by nearly half the population of the United States. If it were possible to overcome the repugnance of Pennsylvania to every thing of Yankee origin, we might soon hope to see the whole nation, after the ingathering of the harvest, bringing their annual tribute of Thanksgiving to the Giver, by a public and solemn act.” {3}

By the mid-19th Century most thanksgiving festivities consisted of attending church as well as eating a big meal. The New York Herald’s December 14, 1843 edition described:

“the day when citizens whether ‘saints or sinners’ are ‘called on by the Governor to rest from their labors, feed on roast turkey, and doze away an hour in the house of God’. The article also reminds citizens the ‘civil authorities intermeddle with that which belongs only to the priesthood’.” {3}

They are back to the Thomas Jefferson question and the phrase he stated of separation of church and state. However the editors conclude “We regard this – but after all what’s the use of discussing the point? So to your knees, ye saints.” {3}

The Yankee Holiday Faces a "Southern" Stonewall

Before the Civil War many Southern states were unwilling to celebrate Thanksgiving as the Northern states did. The holiday that was birthed in New England was steeped in traditional New England foods including turkey, pumpkins and especially cranberries. In a region containing such traditional foods as ham, collards and black eyes peas, any traditional fall festival meal was decidedly different.

Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was a Northern woman determined that the United States of America establish a national day of Thanksgiving. She began a vigorous letter-writing campaign and wrote letters (every year) to all the Governors encouraging them to set-aside a day of Thanksgiving. This did not set well with many Southern leaders.

In 1853 Virginia Governor Joseph Johnson would not declare a day of Thanksgiving using the argument of fellow Virginian Thomas Jeffersons’s doctrine of separation of church and state.

His successor Henry A. Wise (a slave owner) when he received his letter from Hale dashed off his reply:

"This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving, has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching 'Christian politics' instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified." {4}

The South was beginning to see the “other causes” as abolitionism. The newspaper “The Richmond Whig” decried the celebratory aspect of Thanksgiving and felt the need for a day of divine worship. In Washington City, the paper noted, all federal offices would be closed yet -

"an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled," [and the holiday would be] ”little more than an occasion for indulgence in dissipation at the cost of character.” [the editorial continued] "While we are content, to buy our cotton spools and wooden ware from New England, because hers are the cheapest, we are by no means content to receive her notions of religion, morals, the duties of citizenship, as being the best.” {4}

In 1855 a Mississippi physician, William H. Holcombe wrote in his diary:

"This was Thanksgiving day. I am sorry that the Yankee custom has crept in among us. I object to it because it makes gratitude to God a matter of civil ordinance, and limits to a single day the exhibition of feelings which should be a portion of our daily life.” {4}

But the New England “Yankees” gave the criticism no thought. “The Lowell Daily Citizen and News” of Massachusetts printed the following in their December 4, 1858 edition:

“One million turkeys, 12,000,000 chickens, 30,000,000 pounds of pork, 30,000,000 pounds of beef, 6,000,000 pounds of raisins, 30,000,000 pounds of flour, 30,000,000 pounds of sugar. The turkeys placed three feet apart in a straight line would reach from Massachusetts to Indiana. The chickens, one foot apart, would reach from New York to California. The pies, side by side, would reach across the Atlantic Ocean. It would require 25,000 cattle and 50,000 swine to furnish the beef and pork. The raisins would cost nearly a million of dollars, and the flour quite that sum. The sugar would cost about three millions, and the whole value of the items we have named would exceed $18,000,000! Our estimate gives one turkey to three families, four chickens to each family, also ten pies, ten pounds each of pork and beef, two pounds of raisins, ten pounds of flour and ten of sugar. The eggs, spices, lard, butter and ‘fixins’ generally, of which we have made no account, would raise the sum total to nearly twenty-five millions of dollars. (3}


Harper’s Weekly
Winslow Homer - November 27, 1858
(Public Domain)

Sarah Hale found some success in the South when in 1858 the states of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina designated November 25th as a day of Thanksgiving. The Charleston Courier reported the story:

“Our city presented a Sunday appearance. Business rested. The stones answered only to the wheels of light vehicles. The church-bells discoursed sweet music, and crowds flocked to the houses of worship.” {4}

Other Southern newspapers also carried the day. Perhaps the most interesting was “The Augusta Chronicle” when they reported of Thanksgiving Day in 1858:

“Thursday was more generally observed as a day of Thanksgiving in this city—more generally, we believe, than on any former occasion." {4}

Ironically in twenty-four years on Thanksgiving Day in 1882 the same paper reported:​

"We dare say most of the Thanksgiving will take the form of gastronomic pleasure. Every person who can afford turkey or procure it will sacrifice the noble American fowl to-day.” {4}

The antebellum period in America was rapidly speeding toward a destiny of war. Soon to arrive were be years of tears and empty chairs. During the war the idea of giving a day of fasting and prayer would take on a new meaning. There would be no more “Thanksgiving Dance” as illustration below.​


Harper’s Weekly
Winslow Homer - November 27, 1858
(Public Domain)

The times in the United States were changing and life would never be the same.

“A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to love and a time to hate.

A time for war and a time for peace.”

May 1, 2015
Upstate N.Y.
Seems hard to fathom why a day of Thanksgiving was up against such disfavor in the South. No reason not to substitute a ham for a turkey or feel one day should be more thankful then the rest of the year. Sour grapes maybe?


Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
May 12, 2010
Now Florida but always a Kentuckian
Today our Genealogy Club which meets on Zoom had presentation "Who Were the Passengers of the Mayflower?" It was very informative. I haven't looked into whether I have any ancestors who could have been on the Mayflower. But I am going to as one of 25 surnames who survived is Cooke. That is a name in my family. I have gone back to early 1700s on that line but need to do further research.


Mar 24, 2020
Unsure how the South was "against it," as the first Thanksgiving was held in Virginia.

Similar threads