Time Machine

Time Machine: The history of Iowa's first Thanksgiving(s)

Ansel Briggs, Iowa's first governor from 1846 to 1850, proclaimed the first official day of thanksgiving in Iowa in 1847
Ansel Briggs, Iowa’s first governor from 1846 to 1850, proclaimed the first official day of thanksgiving in Iowa in 1847, the year after Iowa became a state. Iowa Gov. James W. Grimes has been frequently — and incorrectly — credited with proclaiming Iowa’s first Thanksgiving in 1855.
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Iowa’s first territorial Thanksgiving is generally believed to have been proclaimed by Gov. Robert Lucas, who served from 1838 to 1841. The holiday’s celebration was common in New England, and settlers who came west were believed to have continued the tradition.

But the first recorded gubernatorial proclamation of the celebration came from Iowa’s second territorial governor, John Chambers of Kentucky, who was appointed in 1841.

Chambers’ Thanksgiving proclamation, signed in the territorial office in Burlington “at the requests of many of my fellow citizens,” declared Dec. 12, 1844, as a day of thanksgiving.

“We are told that ‘righteousness exalteth a nation,’ and are taught by divine authority that the voice of thanksgiving and prayer is acceptable to our Father in Heaven,” Chambers’ proclamation stated.

“Let us then, on the day designated, unite our voices, in the humble hope that they will reach the Throne of Grace and obtain for us a continuation and increase of blessings.”

James Clarke of Burlington, an advocate for Iowa’s statehood, became territorial governor in 1845 after the territorial capital had been moved to Iowa City. Newspapers didn’t record any Thanksgiving proclamations by him, but reminders of the day appeared in the Burlington Hawk-Eye newspaper’s columns.

First official proclamation

The day Iowa became the Union’s 29th state — Dec. 28, 1846 — Ansel Briggs, elected the state’s first governor on Dec. 2, gave his inaugural address. The following November, Briggs signed his first Thanksgiving Proclamation, setting aside Thursday, Nov. 25, 1847, as a day for giving thanks.

He had some choice words in the proclamation for the “semi-barbarous nation” the United States was then fighting in the Mexican-American War and some even stronger words about the need to give thanks:

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“I do hereby recommend that all Christian denominations in the State meet together at their usual places of worship, and return thanks to the Great Disposer of events, for the manifold blessings which have been showered upon us during the last year.”

In Cedar Rapids

Thanksgiving had been celebrated in Cedar Rapids before then, probably as early as 1843, but certainly by 1846, according to Mrs. John F. Ely, one of the city’s pioneers.

She recalled in a 1903 interview that a Thanksgiving service was held in 1846 in the city’s first school building, built 1846-47 at the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street.

Date confusion

The Gazette, citing secretary of state records, also reported then — incorrectly — that Iowa’s first Iowa Thanksgiving proclamation had been signed by Gov. James W. Grimes in 1855.

Even though that wasn’t the case, the 1855 date was periodically repeated for decades.

For example, the Muscatine Journal in 1920 wrote, “Thanksgiving was first officially celebrated in Iowa in 1855 in compliance with a formal proclamation by Gov. James W. Grimes at the Old Capitol at Iowa City in the ninth year of the history of the state.”

Even as late as 2004, the Burlington Hawk Eye credited Grimes with bringing Thanksgiving to Iowa in 1855.

For the record: Iowa’s first gubernatorial Thanksgiving proclamation was signed in November 1847.

National holiday in 1863

It was in 1863 — in the midst of the nation’s horrific Civil War — that President Abraham Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving, ordering all federal government offices closed that day.

The holiday came about, in part, because of repeated appeals for a national Thanksgiving holiday from Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer, author of the “Mary Had a Little Lamb” nursery rhyme and longtime editor of Godey’s Lady Book, the nation’s most widely circulated magazine before the Civil War.

The text of the first proclamation

This is the text of Iowa’s first official Thanksgiving proclamation, signed Nov. 1, 1847, by Iowa’s first governor, Ansel Briggs:

By the Governor of the State of Iowa

A Proclamation

In conformity with an established custom in most of the States of our highly favored Union, and likewise having been requested to do so, from several portions of our State, I have thought proper to appoint Thursday, the 25th day of November, as a day General Thanksgiving and Praise to Almighty God, in the State of Iowa, and I do hereby recommend that all Christian denominations in the State, meet together at their usual places of worship, and return thanks to the Great Disposer of events, for the manifold blessings which have been showered upon us during the last year.

It has been unusually healthy. The garners of the Husbandmen are full to overflowing. The tide of immigration is rolling rapidly into Iowa, and above all, the Christian Religion is advancing with rapid strides, and although our country is engaged in war with a semi-barbarous nation, our thanks are especially due for the numerous and important victories which we have been enabled to gain over them, notwithstanding the numerical inferiority of our forces.

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For all and every blessing, it is the bounden duty of an enlightened people to return thanks to the Great Creator. No nation of the earth has been so highly favored as ours, and no State in our Union has made more rapid strides in the advancement of Education, Commerce, and Agriculture than Iowa.

Then let us all assemble on the 25th and not only return thanks for the blessings which we have received, but humbly and with faith ask for a continuance of the same.

In testimony whereof, I have here unto subscribed my name and caused the Great Seal of the State to be affixed at Iowa City, this first day of Nov. 1847.

Ansel Briggs

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