Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

Origins of Thanksgiving Traditions
Many of us have grown up with the story of the Pilgrims and the “First Thanksgiving.” It’s a well-known story that forms the basis of many of our National Thanksgiving Traditions. But if you think about it, isn’t it a bit late in the harvest to have a big feast in late November? And why is there a big to-do in New York? Days of Thanksgiving were actually pretty common for special events but they weren’t long term annually recurring events.
The reason goes back to November 25, 1783. New York City, NY was the military headquarters for the British Forces in the 13 Colonies. The city had been held by the British Army and Navy since 1776 when they forced George Washington’s Continental Army to retreat into New Jersey. The city was the perfect base for the British Army and Navy to operate against the Continentals in North America. It had a large protected harbor and was in a central location to all of the Colonies. Holding New York also allowed for the New England States to be isolated from the rest of their fellow colonies if one could also control the Hudson River.
Plan of the City of New York, New York City during the American Revolution: being a collection of original papers (now first published) from the manuscripts in the possession of the Mercantile Library Association, of New York City. 1861. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
Thwarting these plans and containing the British within the island of Manhattan became a critical piece of Washington’s strategy. While he was successful at containing the British, he dearly wanted to kick them out of New York. This became tantalizingly possible in 1780.

When the French expeditionary force under General Rochambeau arrived in Rhode Island, Washington seriously considered using the combined forces to attack New York. He was eventually talked out of this by Rochambeau and by the fact that the British had sent their Army out of New York to attack the Southern Colonies. If the Franco-American forces could destroy this Army, it might bring the British Empire to the negotiating table. So Washington, Rochambeau and their troops marched around New York and instead ended the war at Yorktown in October of 1781.
Illustration showing Knox’s troops coming into the Bowery in Manhattan, Harper's Weekly, November 24, 1893. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
Still it was over two years before negotiations were settled and the British left the 13 Colonies.  Sir Guy Carleton advised Washington that British forces would formally leave New York, on November 25, 1783 at 12 noon. General Henry Knox led the American forces into the city to formally take possession and end over 7 years of British occupation.

The British left one final Union Jack nailed to a greased flagpole at Fort George on the Southern Tip of Manhattan, today known as “The Battery.” After several failed attempts, Continental Army veteran John Van Arsdale was able to climb the pole and take down the flag and replace it with the American Flag. For almost 100 years afterwards, a member of the Van Arsdale family had the honor of raising the American Flag during the commemoration of the Evacuation of the British Army.
Illustrations of Evacuation Day, Harper's Weekly, December 8, 1883
Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
For nearly 80 years Evacuation Day was the big November celebration in America, mainly in New York and the rest of the East Coast. It wasn’t until November of 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Thanksgiving to help cement National Unity during the momentous events of the Civil War in 1863. Lincoln’s proclamation coupled with the publication of historical accounts of the Puritan and early New England settlers (particularly Augustus Bradford’s journals) also helped lead to turkey, a uniquely American bird, becoming the preferred main course for the holiday meal. The fact that a single turkey could also feed a large gathering made it especially popular for holiday gatherings.
AboveWild Turkey, Plates I & VI, John James Audubon, The Birds of America Vols. I-IV, 1827-1838. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL
The eager adoption of Lincoln’s proclamation, coupled with the improved relations with the United Kingdom led to a decline in the national observance of Evacuation Day. It still remains a holiday in New York City, but is nowhere near what it once was in the 19th Century. Over time the parades to commemorate the march of Knox’ troops into New York became morphed into Thanksgiving parades, giving us the huge Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade we see today.
Thanksgiving Dinner, 11/23/1983: Some of the senior citizens line up to receive left over turkey and trimmings at the Bel Ridge Community Center sponsored by the Sigma Tau Gamma of UMSL. 
St. Louis Globe Democrat Collection of the Mercantile Library
Grey Hound Bus Station in St. Louis, Thanksgiving Day 1981:
Travelers waiting to continue on their holiday journey.

St. Louis Globe Democrat Collection of the Mercantile Library
We are deeply thankful for our members and friends who have
steadfastly supported us through this extraordinary year.

The Mercantile Library wishes you
a safe and happy Thanksgiving!
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