The Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1877

Rae Gifford History, News and Events

It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving is here! For many, it is a time of food, family, and tradition, even if today’s celebrations don’t often mimic the original celebrations in Virginia and Massachusetts. Last year, we blogged about the history of the First Massachusetts Thanksgiving and Governor, Eli H. Murray’s 1884 Thanksgiving proclamation. Today, we want to look at another historical Thanksgiving proclamation.

As was mentioned last year, although Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863, it was not a set day every year. Rather, it was announced in an annual proclamation. In 1877, Utah’s Territorial Governor George W. Emery (1875-1880) declared that year’s Thanksgiving to be on November 29th. This proclamation highlights two prominent features of the early Thanksgiving celebrations.

A 1 page document with Thanksgiving Proclamation across the top.

Territorial Secretary, Territorial Executive Papers,6241-6315, Nov. 2, 1877 – Jan. 18, 1878, Series 241, Utah State Archives and Records Service

First, as early as 1621 we can find Thanksgiving celebrations connected to good harvests. Governor Emery highlights this connection as he notes that the 1877 harvest in Utah was “abundant.” He also noted that the Thanksgiving celebration is part of “the national custom of celebrating the gathering of the annual crops.”  

Secondly, the original Thanksgiving celebrations were linked to religious events. As Governor Emery states, the completion and abundance of the harvest “reminds … of the continuing goodness of Divine Providence” and leads to “giving thanks to the Lord of the Harvest.” In both Emery’s 1877 proclamation and Murray’s 1884 proclamation, the governors urged the people to take a day away from their regular duties. Emery specifically calls for the people to “assemble in their accustomed places of worship and engage in exercises appropriate to the occasion and acceptable to God.” While Murray recommends that people gather “about their homes and in their houses of public worship [to] render grateful homage and praise to the ‘Giver of every good and perfect gift.’”

We recognize the difficult histories of appropriation and conquest that make this now annual holiday controversial. As archivists, we understand that often the documents we have only represent one voice of the past and that the many others that make up our history are missing. This document was not meant as a proclamation to the indigenous tribes of our area, who were still suffering from the European conquest of the West. (The Library of Congress has created a great online tool to learn more about the experiences of Native Americans) As we work to preserve the history of our state’s government, we must actively work to preserve the voices of all the people who reside here. We continue to be grateful for the public, administrative, and legislative support that allows us to fulfill our mission: to assist Utah’s government agencies in the efficient management of their records, preserve Utah’s governmental records of enduring value, and provide quality access to public information.

Happy Thanksgiving!