Enjoying Norman Rockwell moments and the history of Thanksgiving

By Rich Tarrant

The first Thanksgiving in America took place on December fourth in 1619. Part of the original charter made by the thirty-eight English settlers who arrived at the Berkeley Plantation in Virginia that year stated that they would set aside that day every year and celebrate it as a day of Thanksgiving. Due to the hardships of those early times and various other factors, the celebration was a short-lived occurrence. Consequently, this particular piece of American history is been all but forgotten.

The Thanksgiving with which most of us now commonly identify is the one that took place at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. The first winter for the Pilgrims who had come on the Mayflower to this brave ‘New World’ was particularly brutal. Nearly half of them died. Yet times did eventually become easier for them. The following harvest season was so bountiful they decided to hold a feast of celebration and thanksgiving. The festivities lasted three days, and included the participation of nearly a hundred American natives. Governor William Bradford invited them to thank them for helping the new colonists survive the harsh weather conditions.

Through the years folks argued the pros and cons of making it a national holiday. In 1789 President George Washington made the first Presidential proclamation declaring Thanksgiving a national event. The next President, John Adams, also declared a day of Thanksgiving, but mistakenly tried moving it from Thursday to Wednesday. The American people didn’t appreciate his meddling and he was quickly persuaded to amend his amendment. It returned to Thursday.

            When President Thomas Jefferson’s turn came, he decided against the idea of Thanksgiving altogether. At the time, numerous folks scoffed at the idea of setting aside a day to honor the hard times of what they perceived to be but a handful of English Puritans. And thus, it was (set aside) for the next half-century or so. Then – along came Sarah.

Sarah was Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (b.1788-d.1879) an energetic 19th century magazine editor (e.g. Boston Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book). Best known for her poem “Mary Had A Little Lamb” her robust editorials and strong letters to politicians concerning policies of the times effectively raised more than a few eyebrows, and singed a few moustaches. Sarah believed that our nation sincerely needed to set aside a day to give thanks ‘unto him from who all blessings flow’.  And that day was, of course, Thanksgiving.

And so she wrote; and cajoled; and persisted. And so, finally, someone heard her. In 1863 President Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

While it is certainly a time to remember the aforementioned Pilgrims; and to eat turkey and pumpkin pie; it is also a day to be with family. And – as Sarah put it – “to give thanks ‘unto him from who all blessings flow’.”  It’s a Norman Rockwell moment wherein a picture of a yesteryear – be it your family or mine – says it all.

Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant has agreed to share many of the photos and stories he has acquired from the former Vermilion News and other local sources with the readers of the Photojournal. Rich is the youngest son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at: rnt@twc.com

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