Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

1845—Washington’s First Thanksgiving

In November of 1845 Washington’s newspapers, including the National Intelligencer, and The Union, reported on Mayor William Winston Seaton’s proclamation of November 27 as a “Day of Thanksgiving,” it being the city’s first observance of the holiday. Maryland’s Governor Thomas Pratt had issued a Thanksgiving proclamation earlier in October, also setting November 27 as the day for that states’ observance.

Full column here: http://intowner.com/2017/11/19/1845-washingtons-first-thanksgiving/


Seaton’s proclamation had sparse local precedents. [1] The Thanksgiving holiday observance had New England, “Yankee,” origins — primarily Connecticut and Massachusetts — but had recently slowly spread southward through the states. Niles’ Weekly Register, in the last quarter of 1817, noted in passing Thanksgiving proclamations in New-York, Pennsylvania, the city of Charleston, and Vermont.

In 1832 Washington had had a special (one-off) day of thanksgiving for the departure of the cholera epidemic. The epidemic was a serious one – 1,000 cases were reported, half of them fatal. Washington’s population at the time was only 24,000. [2]

As the 1840s progressed an increasing number of state governors adopted the holiday and proclaimed the observance of a day of thanksgiving in late November or early December. Federal holidays simply did not exist. The only other precedent might have been from the early days of the Republic, when Presidents George Washington and John Adams had each had proclaimed a day of thanksgiving as a religious observance.


Washington in 1845 was, to employ the cliché, a sleepy small town, of a little over 33,000 residents. Still in the future lay the major features familiar today. The creation of the Smithsonian would happen in the following year; the groundbreaking initiating the long struggle to build the Washington Monument in 1848.





What inspired Mayor Seaton and the aldermen to inaugurate the city’s celebration of Thanksgiving remains unknown. Newspapers had kept up a drumbeat for the observance for several years previously. In 1839 the Madisonianprinted an editorial from the New York Journal of Commerce urging the celebration; in 1840 reprinted a holiday history from the Boston Post; and in 1842 reprinted the Archbishop of Baltimore’s circular requesting that churches in the archdiocese conduct services on December 14 in observance.

Prompted, perhaps, by Maryland’s observance, in 1843 a letter to the editor in the Madisonian, published on November 8th and 9th and signed “District,” could cite general discussion advocating a Washington Thanksgiving observance:

“THANKSGIVING. Mr. Editor: A friendly discussion of this question appears to be well received by the community from the progress the day has made is our country and, with your permission, I submit a few words in its favor; at the same time I am happy in observing that several communications have already appeared through the columns of our different journals, relative to its observance in this District.”

 One-hundred and seventy-two years ago, Thanksgiving in Washington was wholly unlike the holiday celebrated today. Today it is routine, traditional, national, noncontroversial. Then it was new, “Yankee,” an innovation imported from the North. It was a local observance, not national. There was nothing like our current federal holidays. Not a tradition, it was uncertain — not only when, but whether there would be a Thanksgiving observed. When it was proclaimed, it was as a religious observance. But advocates of observing Thanksgiving saw it as a powerful weapon in combating the growing sectionalism dividing the country–an American holiday thanking God for the blessings bestowed on the Union. Others did try to co-opt it — abolitionists and temperance fighters.

For many today it is a celebration of family, rather than nation. Fifty-one million Americans are due to travel this year for Thanksgiving — 15 percent of the population. Today it has been secularized. Competition with Christmas has vanished; Thanksgiving now kicks off the month-long holiday season, with Christmas (or, arguably, New Years’) the conclusion.

Full column here: http://intowner.com/2017/11/19/1845-washingtons-first-thanksgiving/

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