Arkansas’s First Thanksgiving

Want to know about Arkansas’s first Thanksgiving? 

Arkansas officially observed its first Thanksgiving on December 9, 1847. Here’s a little history about it: One of the first American female novelists, Sarah Josepha Hale, (a New Hampshire writer famous for penning the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”) campaigned nationally for Thanksgiving in 1846 by writing personal letters to all of the state’s governors. Hale was hip to kick-start a national Thanksgiving observation based on George Washington’s request for a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, designating November 28, as the day. After several years of lobbying for the holiday through periodicals, her barrage of letters in 1846 actually worked, at least in Arkansas. The governor, Thomas Stevenson Drew, thought Hale had a good idea and issued his first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1847. 

Here’s what he said: 

“Whereas, an all wise and merciful Providence has dispensed blessings of the most bountiful and diversified character among the people of this state, in the abundance of the various agricultural crops, the universal prosperity of our people and their unexampled good health, it is deemed worthy of a greatful [sic] people to make public manifestation of their sense of the renewed obligations under which we have been placed, by the appointment of a day of general THANKSGIVING throughout the state.

Be it known, therefore, that I, Thomas S. Drew, Governor of the State of Arkansas, have appointed Thursday, the 9th day of December next as a day of THANKSGIVING, which is hereby proclaimed and recommended to the good of people in every county and town in the state as a fit day and proper time to acquit ourselves, each and every one, of a high and praiseworthy duty to the Bountiful and Merciful Providence.

Given under my hand at Little Rock and to which is affixed the Great Seal of the State of Arkansas, this 12th day of October, 1847, and the Independence of the United States the seventy-second year.

By the Governor

Thomas S. Drew”

It took two months for the word to get out in Arkansas about the special day. The news was spread via “mail boat” (mail delivered by steamboat) and by stagecoach and horseback riders making “weekly” deliveries. The two newspapers in Little Rock, “The Banner” and the “Arkansas State Democrat” published the Governor’s proclamation. The following year, Governor Drew issued a similar proclamation, but changed the date to December 14. John Selden Roane, the next governor, issued a similar proclamation as did Governor Elias Conway, who set the date for Thanksgiving as December 27.

What did Arkansawyers eat on the first Turkey Day?

 Well, it wasn’t turkey, believe it or not! Turkey wasn’t the Thanksgiving icon in 1847 that it is today. Judging from the records of incoming cargo and food advertisements at the time, Little Rock Thanksgiving-ers that first year ate bacon, fresh beef, mutton, fresh pork, veal and geese. Butter, eggs, cheese and honey were abundant, and potatoes, onions, beets, apples and turnips were sold by the bushel. Among other delights available at the time were raisins, loaf sugar, water crackers and pickled herring. Beverages included hop beer, ratafia (a term used for two types of sweet alcoholic beverage, either a fortified wine or a fruit-based beverage) and wines made from wild berries. For dessert? “Philpies, bops, zepharinas, jumbles, sally lun, journey cake, marvels, cymbals, flummeries, syllabubs, trifles and floating islands.” We did a little research to help define these frilly-sounding desserts. Philpies (or philpy) is a quick bread made from rice. A flummery is a starch-based soft dessert pudding popular in Britain and Ireland from the 17th to 19th centuries. Syllabubs were made from frothed cream and wine. A floating island is a dessert of French origin, consisting of meringue floating on vanilla custard. Journey cakes are johnnycakes, a cornmeal flatbread that was an early American staple food with its origins in Native American cooking. We found one reference to a Mississippi Marvel Cake, a pudding-filled pie, which may be similar to the “marvels” mentioned. Jumbles are cookie-like pastries. Sally Lunn cake and trifles are desserts many folks know. What about bops, zepharinas or cymbals? We don’t know! 

[Source: “When Arkansas Had Its First Thanksgiving Day—1847,”written by Diana Sherwood (reprinted from the “Arkansas Gazette” on November 21, 1937) published in the “Arkansas Historical Quarterly,” pages 250-256, Volume 4, Number 3, Autumn 1945. Pictured: Philpy, Flummery made with an 18th century wooden mold, Syllabubs and Floating islands. ]