As our nation sits down to a table filled with food on Thanksgiving Day, each of us should thank God for our blessings and give to those less fortunate. I am always thankful for our military, serving both here and abroad, so that we can have freedom, not only to serve God, but to live a life of independence. Even in a peace-time setting we can find it interesting to note that Thanksgiving became a national holiday during a time of war in order for the military to have some small comfort reminding them of “home.”
In April 1862 and July 1863 (after Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg) President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed several thanksgivings. Then, in October of 1863, Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving Day to be observed on the last Thursday of November, 1863. This proclamation began, partially as a result of seventy-four year old Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale. Sarah, who was the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” had spent forty years campaigning for a national annual Thanksgiving holiday. She saw this as a way to give hope to a torn nation, and Lincoln, as President, and politician, also needed something to bring the country together during war time.
History tells us that the Confederate army was very near starvation during the war, and that the South had little, if any, food left afterward. We can understand that fact when we read about soldiers such as W.G. Allen, returning home to Washington in Rhea County after the War Between the States. Allen wrote that there were no crops remaining, and that no horses could be found. He also stated that his home, along with many others, had been burned, and that he and his wife started over with a “sifter” of corn meal and some borrowed bacon.
According to historians, during the War Between the States, Northern farms produced great harvests because of the McCormick reaper and the John Deere plows and cultivators. Even though the South had originally used these machines, they could not repair or replace the machinery or their parts after the war began. (The reaper was invented in Virginia, but McCormick moved the manufacturing plant to Chicago in the 1840’s.) Then the Union troops began to take livestock, destroy warehouses, and ruin the harvests of the Southerners. Naturally, both sides suffered, with the enlisted men feeling the most hardships. The Confederate troops received cornmeal, rather than the wheat-flour soft bread or hard bread of the Union troops. This hard bread soon became known as “hardtack” shortly after the beginning of the war. From a first-hand account by a Massachusetts veteran, the hardtack could be “moldy, maggoty, or weevil-laden.” Another food item worthy of attention was the dehydrated vegetable cake, which could be boiled to make a “sort of” soup! This was part of the soldier’s diet in order to fight scurvy and other nutritional diseases. For protein, there was salt pork and bacon, or what the soldiers called “vile” salt beef. The salt beef was raw beef handed out immediately after the animal was slaughtered; this was seared over a campfire by each soldier, then salted and eaten.
The main centerpiece of most dining tables will be the turkey for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. According to research, the North American common turkey has been domesticated since pre-Columbian times. The adult male, called a gobbler or tom, has a featherless bright red head, and a fleshy red ornament (snood) growing over the bill, with a similar wattle (brightly colored flap of skin) hanging from the throat. Also, the male might grow to be fifty inches long, and could weigh more than twenty pounds. The habitat of the wild turkey is woodland areas near water. Turkeys eat seeds, insects, and occasionally, a frog or lizard. Male turkeys collect a harem, with each hen (female) producing between eight and fifteen eggs in a hollow in the ground. Also, the female builds the nest and hatches the young alone. Wild turkeys are non-migratory (stay in one region), although they are good fliers; they are also polygamous (more than one mate at the same time). Since turkeys are an exceptional source of meat and can be easily shot, wild turkeys were almost extinct due to the European settlers. However, because of conservation efforts, these turkeys have been reestablished in many areas of their former habitat.
The turkey is related to the grouse and the pheasant, with its name being derived from its “turk-turk” call. Most turkeys raised today in the United States are from the White Holland variety, which has been bred to produce a maximum of white meat. Even though the turkey of today has been raised for the dinner table, and can be extremely large; smaller turkeys are becoming more popular due to smaller families and a desire for producers to make turkey available all year long. Of course we cannot forget the custom of the pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey by the White House. This tradition dates back to 1947 and President Harry S. Truman; although it has been said that unofficially Abraham Lincoln was the originator of this act when he granted a pardon to the pet turkey belonging to his son, Tad.
From research we find that the first Thanksgiving came about as a celebration feast of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts. These Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England in 1620 aboard a ship called the Mayflower, hoping to escape religious persecution in their own land. After setting sail in September, they sighted land and settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts in December of 1620. Their first winter in a strange land was very severe, and many of their number died from the harsh conditions in the “new world.” However, the local Native Americans were friendly toward them and helped to get them through the winter by sharing their food and teaching the new settlers how to grow and store various foods.
By the next winter the Pilgrims had raised enough food to stay alive, and decided to have a community feast. This was a harvest feast in which they invited their Native American friends to celebrate with them. Their foods consisted of Indian corn, barley, pumpkins, waterfowl, deer and fish. It was possible that wild turkey was eaten; however, the term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to designate all types of wild fowl. These early settlers could not have lived if their Indian friends had not introduced them to such things as turtles, oysters, shad, codfish and clams. (Shad is a salt-water fish related to the herring, but spawning in rivers.)
By their third year in Plymouth, the Pilgrims did not have a good harvest due to a drought. Because of these conditions, their governor, William Bradford, ordered a day of prayer and fasting; rain happened to follow soon, and they celebrated. This celebration was declared on November 29 of that year, with a day of thanksgiving proclaimed. And this date is thought to be the true beginning of our present Thanksgiving Day.
In 1789, George Washington proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving. However, some of the colonists disagreed with this because they did not think that the hardships of a “handful” of Pilgrims gave the right to have a national holiday. Then, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.
After Lincoln, every president has proclaimed Thanksgiving as a holiday, even though the date has been changed several times. President Franklin Roosevelt set the date for Thanksgiving on the next to last Thursday in order to have a longer Christmas shopping season. However, this caused controversy with the public, and the president moved the date back to its original time of the last Thursday in the month. Then, in 1941, Thanksgiving was finally proclaimed by Congress as a legal holiday to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November.
As we celebrate our Thanksgiving, many of us will have turkey, dressing (or stuffing), gravy, cranberries or cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, just to name a few foods. We can thank the Native Americans for being the first to use cranberries as food, since they probably introduced cranberries to the starving English settlers in Massachusetts. The turkey is mentioned in many accounts of the new colony in America as being part of the “fowl” served at the first Thanksgiving. Pumpkin is also mentioned as part of the first Thanksgiving, but not as we know it today; the Pilgrims ate pumpkin that was boiled, but not in pie. By the time of their harvest celebration, they had run out of most of their staples, including flour to make something similar to our pie crust. The settlers also made a type of fried bread from corn, but had no milk, potatoes or butter. It is hard for us to imagine cooking a Thanksgiving dinner without some of these items.
At the end of Thanksgiving Day, everyone around the dinner table will definitely be “stuffed”! At that time it would be good to remember others who have little or no food, and who will go hungry that day if we do not share with them. Also, we can think about the fact that our ancestors hunted turkey and other game for food on Thanksgiving morning; they brought their bounty home and cooked it for the holiday feast. I’m sure most of us are glad that we do not have to forage for food as our forefathers did, but those who enjoy hunting can do that as a sport and eat the results. As we make “Grandma’s” recipes, and prepare our Thanksgiving meal, we should be grateful for our many freedoms, especially the freedom of worship. We also need to study, preserve and appreciate the past in order to be able to live in the present and be part of the future.