History 301: Thanksgiving’s evolution to our modern holiday

In 1965, first-grade students at School 42 depict the first Thanksgiving.

By CONNIE ZEIGLER, Contributing editor

It’s almost time for Thanksgiving. As we celebrate the holiday we become part of an ancient tradition. Long before Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, the peoples of this area were already celebrating.

Starting before the first white explorers and settlers entered Central Indiana, the indigenous tribes, such as the Miami, who mostly passed through the area, and the Delaware, who had moved into the region after being pushed out of their homelands along the East Coast by European settlement, celebrated the gathering and harvesting of food in the months before winter’s harshness set in.

Music, dance and feasting were part of the Native American celebrations in this part of America.

George Washington issued the new American government’s first Thanksgiving Proclamation In 1789, naming Thursday, Nov. 26, a day for the nation to thank the “beneficient Author … for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war – for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed – for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness … for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed ….” Other American presidents issued subsequent proclamations, but it was up to individual states to decide whether to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving and, if so, on what day.

Indianapolis didn’t exist as a European-American settlement until 1820 or so and while those earliest settlers may have celebrated a harvest holiday or even joined in on a national day for thanksgiving, the first known mention of a city-wide Thanksgiving – with a capital T –  in the capital city, occurs in the diary of attorney and Indianapolis pioneer Calvin Fletcher in 1837.

Fletcher wrote that Gov. Noah Noble had issued a proclamation declaring Dec. 7, 1837, to be Thanksgiving Day. Fletcher and his wife celebrated by hosting a dinner for 17 friends. Local churches gathered together for a service, “all the stores were shut & Indianapolis was in great harmony,” he wrote.

Interestingly, Indianapolis historians Berry Sulgrove and Jacob Piatt Dunn both attribute the “first” Thanksgiving “public holiday” to Gov. David Wallace two years after the one that Fletcher mentions. Gov. Wallace declared Thanksgiving Day 1839 would be Thursday, Nov. 28.

Fletcher’s Thanksgiving day diary entry in 1840 states that before he dined with family, he joined Mrs. Julia Hand of the Benevolent Society to help with that association’s annual Thanksgiving Day distribution of clothing to the poor. He attended a sermon at the Methodist church, then a session of the Circuit Court, and then met with “Gen’l Hanner” to collect his portion of $363.60 from the sale of 46 hogs. It was a busy day, ending with a good reason to give thanks.

On Nov. 25, 1858, Fletcher wrote that he got two turkeys from a nearby farmer, “had Thanksgiving dinner. Mrs. F. worked hard to get it up.” And he noted that “some 20 or more States have set apart this day.” A new American holiday was coalescing.

A few years later, in 1863, President Lincoln finally proclaimed a national holiday to give thanks and to excuse some workers from a day of labor. Lincoln was prodded into this proclamation in large part by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady Book, who had campaigned for it for years.

The holiday was to take place every year on the last Thursday of November – later changed to the third Thursday of November by Franklin Roosevelt. In Indianapolis, Thanksgiving Day quickly became a day of firsts. On Thanksgiving Day 1864, a committee of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation met and began a fund-raising campaign for a new temple building. By 1865, enough money had been raised to begin construction at 435 Market St. The temple is gone, but a historical marker is now located near the spot.

Jacob Piatt Dunn wrote that the Indianapolis Dramatic Society, established in 1872, gave its first performance on Thanksgiving, Nov. 29, 1873, to benefit of the poor. The play was called Married Life.

A few years later, the Young Ladies Excelsior Glee Club, a social organization for young black women, began a tradition of opening its 1879 social season on Thanksgiving Day, according to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

Another Thanksgiving first occurred in 1888 when the first illumination of incandescent lights in the city took place at the Park Theatre. The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis reports that there were 741 16-candlewatt-power incandescent bulbs switched on that chilly November evening, a festive precursor to today’s lighting of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.

The Encyclopedia also reports that, in 1894, Butler University scheduled its first Thanksgiving Day football game with the Indianapolis Light Artillery Eleven, an independent football team. This was not a tradition that everyone could get behind, however. The Butler College game conflicted with a traditional Thanksgiving game between Purdue and DePauw. Those two schools complained so bitterly over lost revenue that Butler cut out the Thanksgiving shenanigans.

By 1914, and perhaps long before, Thanksgiving was taught as an American history subject in Indianapolis schools. That year the Indianapolis Public Schools book, Course of Study Geography, History, and Civics, tells teachers to “Teach recitations and songs appropriate to the holiday.” It suggests that Thanksgiving Day subjects should be all-American stories, from a Euro-American centric view, such as “The Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, Miles Standish,  Samoset and Squanto; the first winter; [and] the first Thanksgiving.”

Barely a century after Indiana became a state and less than a century after Indianapolis became a state capital, the schools and the citizens were aware of their long history of Thanksgiving as a great American holiday, embracing what they considered to be all-American activities: feasts and families and friends and firsts and football.

In 1919, the best-selling English novelist Hugh Walpole, who wrote The Story of Doctor Doolittle and many other books, was in Indianapolis for a speaking engagement on Thanksgiving Day. In a chronicle of the trip, he sized up the value of a traveler experiencing his first-ever “American Thanksgiving Day” here. “It’s appropriate that I should spend it in the most completely American town imaginable,” he wrote, a description of Indianapolis that Calvin Fletcher would surely have agreed with on that “first” Thanksgiving Day in the same city.