When Did Thanksgiving Head South?

Introduction: In this article – the third in a series of three articles celebrating Thanksgiving – Jane Hampton Cook shows how Thanksgiving Day migrated to the South. Jane is a presidential historian and author of ten books, including her new book Resilience on Parade: Short Stories of Suffragists & Women’s Battle for the Vote. She is the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. She was the first female White House webmaster (2001-03). Her works can be found at Janecook.com.

I have fond memories of frequently traveling from my home in Texas to my grandmother’s house in Arkansas for Thanksgiving during my childhood. We had turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Imagine my surprise when I learned through newspaper articles in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives that Thanksgiving was not always celebrated in the South!

This year, on the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, it’s fitting to share what newspapers tell us about when Thanksgiving spread to the South.

The Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving in 1621. Massachusetts’ Salem Gazette reflected in 1813 that “Our annual Thanksgivings have been observed from the first settlement of the country. May this institution ever be held sacred!”

An article about Thanksgiving, Salem Gazette newspaper article 25 November 1813
Salem Gazette (Salem, Massachusetts), 25 November 1813, page 3

When the New England Society of Philadelphia began holding its annual Thanksgiving feast to honor their New England tradition in 1815, they also sought to reinvent the dour image of their Pilgrim forefathers.

In 1817 the Vermont Intelligencer and Bellows’ Falls Advertiser printed a speech that Nathaniel Chauncey gave at the annual New England Society of Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving dinner. In introducing Chauncey’s remarks, the newspaper’s editor wrote:

“Some of the observations it [Chauncey’s speech] contains are particularly adapted to the meridian in which it was delivered, and were intended to counteract certain prejudices against the first settlers of New-England, which are too common in the Southern parts of the Union.”

Vermont Intelligencer and Bellows’ Falls Advertiser (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 27 January 1817, page 1Vermont Intelligencer and Bellows’ Falls Advertiser newspaper article 27 January 1817
Vermont Intelligencer and Bellows’ Falls Advertiser (Bellows Falls, Vermont), 27 January 1817, page 1

Thanksgiving became an annual national holiday when President Lincoln issued a proclamation in 1863. Because of the Civil War, it’s no surprise that many in the South initially opposed Thanksgiving. “King Abraham has issued a proclamation appointing the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving and prayer in Yankeedom,” South Carolina’s Charleston Courier derided on October 12.

An article about Thanksgiving, Charleston Courier newspaper article 12 October 1863
Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 12 October 1863, page 1

Georgia’s Augusta Chronicle went further on October 15 by accusing Lincoln of fake news. “The document is on a par with the rest of the productions that have been sent out from Washington. Bombastic in tone, and full of false statements. In a thanksgiving proclamation one would suppose that Lincoln would tell the truth, but he has not.”

An article about Thanksgiving, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 15 October 1863
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 15 October 1863, page 2

How did Northern newspapers respond? In contrast, they put a positive spin on giving thanks. Cleveland’s Plain Dealer was thrilled on November 25 that “the whole North will be eating Thanksgiving dinners and mingling in social glee together, upon that occasion. What a grand spectacle!”

An article about Thanksgiving, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 November 1863
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 November 1863, page 3

When did Americans in the South unite around Thanksgiving as a national holiday? It took more than 10 years.

Ten years after Lincoln’s proclamation, the Augusta Chronicle wrote in 1873 about how Thanksgiving was different in the North and South.

“In the New England States, Thanksgiving Day is looked forward to with even greater pleasure than Christmas,” it reported, while observing that Northerners “prepare mountains of doughnuts and pumpkin pies for the occasion, the fatted goose is killed, and everybody is full of the event.”

An article about Thanksgiving, Augusta Chronicle newspaper article 7 November 1873
Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Georgia), 27 November 1873, page 4

In the South, the paper reported, Thanksgiving was still merely a day off – a time to close the banks, not to feast.

“In the Middle and Southern States less attention is paid to the day, and beyond its observance as a legal holiday and the services at the churches, where thanks are returned to a Gracious Providence for the blessings of the past year, there is no demonstration.”

Though Southerners still weren’t feasting on pumpkin pie, they were beginning to give thanks, which was an improvement.

Giving thanks and counting their blessings eventually brought Southerners around to feasting and fully embracing Thanksgiving. The proof wasn’t in the pudding or football but in the turkey.

In 1883, the Abbeville Press and Banner in South Carolina published this Thanksgiving ditty:

An article about Thanksgiving, Abbeville Press and Banner newspaper article 21 November 1883
Abbeville Press and Banner (Abbeville, South Carolina), 21 November 1883, page 5

Clearly this clipping, among other articles of the time, show that feasting had become part of Thanksgiving Day in the South.

Twenty years after Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as the annual day of Thanksgiving, Southerners and Northerners alike were all feasting. New England’s Thanksgiving had come of age everywhere.

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2 thoughts on “When Did Thanksgiving Head South?

  1. Thanksgiving in North America began long before 1621 and much further south. The Spanish arrived in La Florida in September 1565. This location was named for Saint Augustine and still carries that name. The colony has changed ownership through the centuries but the city survived them all. Today the Castillo de San Marcos (St. Marks Castle) still dominates our city’s waterfront.

  2. Hi Denise. I love St. Augustine. You are right that Florida had an earlier Thanksgiving. Texas also had an earlier Thanksgiving than the Pilgrims. I wrote about those earlier Thanksgivings in a different article for different outlets last year in 2019. There are some differences and distinctions. The Thanksgivings that took place in Florida and Texas were religious services and meals that were on specific occasions, just like the Pilgrims, but they weren’t part of a harvest. However, from what I understand the Spanish Thanksgivings in Florida and Texas didn’t become annual traditions in the same way that the Thanksgiving Festival became an annual tradition in New England. I talked to Plymouth Patuxet Museum last week to ask some questions when I was writing these GenealogyBank articles, and they explained to me that a book was published in 1841 with a long-lost letter of a 1621 Pilgrim who gives us the best detail that we have about that Thanksgiving. That book made the claim in 1841 that the Pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving in America. That information is what led to the branding of the Mayflower Pilgrims with the first Thanksgiving in America. It was decades later, when the papers at the Berkeley Plantation in Virginia were discovered, that people learned that a Thanksgiving took place in Virginia in 1619 — but it didn’t catch on as an annual event in Virginia. Likewise in the 1970s the state of Texas made the claim about having Thanksgiving in the 1540s after Spanish papers were discovered from an expedition where the Spanish stopped and gave thanks in Palo Duro Canyon. So it’s true that the Pilgrims can no longer claim the first Thanksgiving. But after looking through GenealogyBank’s database of historical newspapers, it’s clear that in 1816 people in New England credited the Pilgrims with instituting Thanksgiving in New England, and that it was an annual tradition. Last week Plymouth told me that as New Englanders moved west and south to New York and Pennsylvania and other places, they took their feast with them and that is part of how it spread. Lincoln’s proclamation and FDR’s declarations about Thanksgiving are what made it the national holiday that it is today. What I really love about Thanksgiving is the giving thanks part. And the fact that the Spanish gave thanks in Florida for their safe arrival is part of that tradition — that we give thanks for our blessings and for the good things in our lives despite the hardships. So it just shows you how different cultures value the attitude of gratitude, and that giving thanks was also part of a religious experience.

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