Thanksgiving dates to 1758 British troops' win at Fort Duquesne
Gen. John Forbes, commanding a wilderness outpost at the confluence of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela rivers, declared Nov. 26, 1758, a day of giving thanks as his British troops captured Fort Duquesne from the French.
Those troops numbered 6,000 to 8,000 men and included a group of Virginians led by George Washington.
Washington, as the nation's first president, proclaimed Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789, to be “a day of public thanks-giving and prayer,” to show appreciation for the opportunity to form a nation and for the establishment of a constitution.
“The choice of dates does not seem like a coincidence,” said Andy Masich, president and chief executive officer of the Senator John Heinz History Center. “But there have been so many squabbles about where Thanksgiving started that I'm not sure anyone could count the claims.”
The first Thanksgiving, as schoolchildren re-enact in annual Thanksgiving pageants, was celebrated at Plymouth Rock. It was celebrated sporadically thereafter.
It did not become a national holiday until 150 years ago. On Oct. 3, 1863, three months after Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be a national day of giving thanks.
“Those victories, just days apart, were the turning point in the war. We have never lost as many brothers, friends, sons, sweethearts as in that conflict. There were 750,000 dead, which today would be 10 million,” said Harold Holzer, a New York historian and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.
Thanksgiving now is known for food, family, football, the Macy's parade in New York and as a prelude to Black Friday shopping madness. Lincoln's Thanksgiving declaration was rooted in faith.
President Obama, in making this year's Thanksgiving proclamation on Wednesday, recounted the words of Lincoln, who asked Americans to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”
“Every society in the last 10,000 years has probably had a fall harvest festival, whether you are a Druid or a Christian. The tendency for this sort of celebration predates America,” Masich said.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, declarations of days of thanks-giving after a military success, like Forbes', were commonplace.
“Abraham Lincoln would call for a day of thanks-giving every time there was a Union victory. It did not mean there was a feasting. It was a day of prayer and giving thanks at any time of the year,” Holzer said.
Thanksgiving's origins are vaguely religious but not sectarian, Holzer said.
“I think it was much more religious in the beginning, but America was more religious then,” he said.
The famous tradition of pardoning the turkey started when Lincoln pardoned Tom, his son Tad's pet turkey.
Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the magazine Godey's Lady's Book, advocated for the holiday with Lincoln and his predecessors.
“She was the Anna Wintour of her day. It was like being editor of Vogue. It was a passion of hers to create an American holiday,” Holzer said.
The commercialism of Black Friday and stores opening on Thanksgiving has been criticized in recent years. Yet Thanksgiving and shopping are a mix that dates to at least the Great Depression.
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving proclamations, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving.
In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. That year, the last Thursday of November was Nov. 30.
Retailers told Roosevelt that left only 24 shopping days to Christmas and asked him to make Thanksgiving a week earlier, which he did.
“It was the Depression. Retailers were nervous. He created confusion to give retailers a bigger opportunity,” Holzer said.
In 1941, Congress passed a law making the fourth Thursday of November Thanksgiving Day, and there it has remained.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.