Gerhard Spieler: The history of Thanksgiving in Beaufort and Hilton Head

March 22, 2010 

Originally published Nov. 19, 2003

Thanksgiving in the Carolina Lowcountry will be celebrated in various ways. Turkey and all the trimmings will be on many tables. Parades from New York to California will mark the start of another holiday season.

More than superficial trappings, Thanksgiving is what its name implies -- thanks for past year's blessings and prayers for the coming year.

The most memorable Lowcountry Thanksgiving in colonial days may have been held on the last Sunday, January 1733, by James Oglethorpe and some

130 newly arrived English settlers and well-wishers from the town of Beaufort. The English were recuperating from a long ocean voyage within the tabby walls of nearby Fort Frederick. Soon they would proceed further south to settle on a bluff of the Savannah River.

A contemporary account related that Oglethorpe "returned on the 24th day (from the proposed Savannah River site) and they celebrated the Sunday following as a day of Thanksgiving for their safe arrival; and a sermon was preached by the Rev. Dr. Herbert, who came with the colony, preaching that day at Beaufort Town.

"There was a great resort of the gentlemen of that neighborhood and their families; and a plentiful dinner provided for the colony and all that came, by

Mr. Oglethorpe; being four fat hogs, eight turkeys, besides fowls, English beef and other provisions, a hogshead punch, a hogshead of beer and a large quantity of wine; and all was disposed in so regular a manner that no person was drunk, nor any disorder happened."

To this day, the partially eroded tabby walls of Fort Frederick, on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Hospital in the town of Port Royal, bear silent witness to that first Lowcountry Thanksgiving.



An early Hilton Head Island journalist, Jonathan Daniels, wrote on Nov. 25, 1976, for the Associated Press under the headline "First Thanksgiving in South hosted in Hilton Head area."

"So far as the South is concerned, the celebration of Thanksgiving apparently was begun in this sea island area of South Carolina.

"The South was hesitant about this New England celebration of thanks and the national observance was only begun when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national harvest festival on Nov. 26, 1863. But earlier, Thanksgiving was joyously celebrated here by Yankees in occupation on Nov. 27, 1862, and the newly freed people they serve ham."

Charlotte Forten, the pretty brown young woman who came here as a school teacher to the freed blacks, gave a delicious description of it in her now famous journal. She made an entry on the day:

"This according to Gen. Saxton's noble Proclamation, was observed as a day of Thanksgiving and praise" ... Forten described the declaration and the day:

"It has been a lovely day ... But we have other causes, great and glorious, which united to make this peculiarly a day of thanksgiving and praise. It has been a general holiday. According to Gen. Saxton's orders an animal was killed on each plantation that the people might today eat fresh meat ..."

Thanksgiving at Coffin Point

A letter, dated Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1863, from the plantation home on Coffin's Point, St. Helena Island read: "We sat down to dinner, 16 Massachusetts people, six ministers' sons, Mr. Folsom and William Allen, Miss R. and Mr. G. went home; all the rest spent the night, and no one on a sofa.

"We wondered what was the last (dinner party) as large that had dined in this old house, but Robert says he never saw such a large party here. Mr. Coffin used to give his dinners in Charleston."

Elizabeth Botume was a Northern school teacher on St. Helena Island. She wrote that "when Thanksgiving Day came in 1867, we wished to remember the time with our Northern friends. We have peace if not plenty, and were contented if not comfortable.

"By we I mean the colored people. In the virtue of patience and contentment they led. We decided to introduce this day to the very old people, so we gave 30 men and women one pound of bacon and a pint of molasses; this was all we could do. But they declared with great glee this was the first Thanksgiving they ever had."

Penn School Thanksgiving

Laura Towne, another Northern teacher, from Philadelphia, was at Penn School. On the grounds is a stone trough, a monument to her endeavors. In her diary for Nov. 12, 1869, she wrote:

"On Thanksgiving Day I am going to have the 'mudderless' here. We are going to give them hominy and molasses for dinner, a ginger cake and orange for dessert and each a warm garment bought with Sadie and Nell's money."

A S.C. state holiday

In the Lowcountry, the years following the Civil War were difficult for black and white people alike. Plantations had been ravaged. The land and Beaufort town properties had been confiscated and sold for nonpayment of taxes.

Nov. 26, 1868, had again been declared a day of national Thanksgiving by the president. The governor of South Carolina issued a similar proclamation for the state. That may have been the first officially declared Thanksgiving Day for South Carolina.

Gov. Glen in 1752

There had been, however, an earlier similar proclamation. In November 1752, Gov. Glen had called upon S.C. colonists to give thanks, not only for their deliverance from the dreadful hurricane, but also thanking Almighty God for "sending favorable weather since the ripening and gathering in the Remaining Fruits of the Earth and also by helping the Inhabitants with a great share of health than they usually enjoy at this season of the year."

j Gerhard Spieler's articles have been printed in The Gazette since 1972.


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