Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. Quick, what first jumps to mind? Airport congestion? Turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie? Football? Doorbuster sales at department stores? These are Thanksgiving hallmarks to many of us. But when did Thanksgiving become a national holiday? The Pilgrims’ celebration at Plymouth Plantation in 1621 may well come to mind, but that predates nationhood.
The first official national Thanksgiving occurred during one of the United States’ darkest chapters: the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln—persuaded by a renowned female editor—did “invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next [i.e., 1863] as a day of thanksgiving and prayer to our beneficent Father . . . .” In a noteworthy coincidence of timing, America’s first official observance occurred exactly seven days after Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address.
Prior to 1863, it was at a state’s discretion when (or whether) there was a day of Thanksgiving. The Minnesota Historical Society has several such proclamations as part of its gubernatorial collections. Now, the MHS has acquired Governor Henry A. Swift’s 1863 proclamation, which follows suit with Lincoln’s. In it, Swift highlights contemporary events—the Civil War, the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, immigration, drought — in language that, to the modern reader, may seem occasionally brusque or even insensitive. Informed by a prevalent perspective in 1863, Swift’s proclamation now serves as documentary evidence to that perspective yet remains available for ongoing interpretation and analysis.
Christopher Welter, Collections Assistant