Thanksgiving, like the Fourth of July, is a distinctly American holiday, although there are similar celebrations in neighboring Canada and other countries, and the citizens of Oyster Bay have taken part in this tradition nearly as long as there have been residents in the hamlet. It is part of a tradition dating to before the creation of the United States, of giving thanks and appreciation for the bounty the country provides and the families and friends who come together to share it.
Everyone knows the famous story of the “first Thanksgiving” in 1621, involving the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people of what is now Massachusetts. Public celebrations of thanks were already a well-established practice in Puritan England, whose citizens would feast and thank God for a bountiful harvest, a military victory or a similarly momentous event.
Similar religious celebrations likely occurred in Oyster Bay throughout its early history, although there is no written evidence of this. The first officially recorded public “thanksgiving celebration” in New York occurred in 1759, as noted in the diary of Oyster Bay schoolmaster Zachariah Weekes.
According to Harriet Clark, director of Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, local historian Claire Bellerjeau discovered that Weekes’s diary mentioned that Nov. 25 had been declared a day of public thanksgiving by the British governor of the New York Colony. Weekes wrote that this was to celebrate a British military victory, most likely the conquest of Canada, which had been ruled by France, during the French and Indian War only a few months earlier.
“According to our historian, Claire Bellerjeau, who’s very apt to find the first this and the first that,” Clark said, “she claims that having done quite a bit of research, she has found no earlier mention of Thanksgiving in New York state.”
During the country’s first few decades, presidents frequently declared various days throughout the year days of public thanksgiving. George Washington was the first to declare a Thursday in November as a “thanksgiving day,” as would John Adams and later presidents.
New York became a leader in the movement to establish Thanksgiving as a public holiday when, in 1830, the State Legislature made Thanksgiving an official state holiday. It was one of the earliest states in the country to do so, and the first one outside New England.
It wasn’t until 1863, however, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday, when, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November to be a national day of thanksgiving. The Oyster Bay Historical Society has a newspaper from the period, the Albany-based “The Country Gentleman,” which was owned by an Oyster Bay resident at the time, announcing the news.
Historical society Director Denice Evans-Sheppard, whose family has a long history in Oyster Bay, explained that as the country began to tie itself together and people began traveling again after the Civil War, they shared what were once local traditions and recipes. Clark agreed, noting that although fowl such as goose and duck was often served at such feasts, the turkey eventually became the universal symbol of Thanksgiving.
Evans-Sheppard recalled that her grandmother Geneva Lancaster Carll was born in Ohio in the early 1920s, and when she came to Long Island and married, she brought her Midwestern cooking and traditions with her.
“I remember how my grandmother would prepare for Thanksgiving, making sure we had enough turkey and food because a lot of extended family would make the trip,” Evans-Sheppard recounted. “The most important thing was having enough food for everyone, including desserts, of course.”
The one thing that has remained the same about Thanksgiving through the years has been its purpose — to give thanks and celebrate with friends and family. As President Theodore Roosevelt, the “first son of Oyster Bay,” declared in his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in 1908, “The things of the body are good; the things of the intellect better; the best of all are the things of the soul; for, in the nation as in the individual, in the long run it is the character that counts.”