Unearthing holiday’s roots at Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay


The mention of the first Thanksgiving in New York has been discovered in a historic diary of an Oyster Bay schoolteacher from the 1750s. This artifact was always at Oyster Bay’s Raynham Hall Museum, but it wasn’t until last week that Claire Bellerjeau, the museum’s director of education, stumbled across the mention of Thanksgiving back when New York was still a colony.

In the collective American mind, Thanksgiving conjures up the feast that Native Americans shared with the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. Bellerjeau was intrigued after reading a diary entry by Zachariah Weekes, dated Nov. 22, 1759. She wondered if further research might offer insight into the history of this holiday in New York, in comparison with celebrations happening in other colonies.

Civilizations around the world celebrate harvests in one way or another, but the search for an American origin of a holiday is of interest to historians. Before the United States became a nation liberated from the British monarchy, present-day states were independent colonies in the 18th century. There was not yet a standardization of some holiday dates. “The Continental Congress, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, proclaimed a day of public Thanksgiving for all 13 colonies in 1779,” Bellerjeau said. “That was very smart of them to do, because they were getting the colonies used to the idea that we’re united.”

Bellerjeau’s quest to find the origins of New York’s first Thanksgiving led her to search primary sources via a research database. She used the online GenealogyBank site to access historic newspaper articles and counted eight mentions of Thanksgiving, but these mostly came from colonies further northeast. To her surprise, New York was missing from journalistic records. While delving deeper into the archives of the 1740s through the 1760s, she finally located a runaway slave advertisement that mentioned Thanksgiving in a newspaper, The New-York Mercury, on Nov. 26, 1759.

The spirit of Thanksgiving back then might not be recognizable to modern-day Americans who celebrate by grazing all day and withstanding frigid temperatures to shop for that coveted holiday gift at the mall. “The people then probably did eat special things because it was a special day, but a day of public Thanksgiving wasn’t as much about eating as it is now,” Bellerjeau said. Instead, as the diary shows, Thanksgiving offered a respite from quotidian routines, when a community gathered and listened to a minister give a special sermon.

Although the diary did not indicate what foods appeared on the Thanksgiving dinner table, it is possible to surmise a mix of produce and meats based on the culinary resources of the region. Since the hamlet of Oyster Bay borders the water, oysters and other fish could have been on the menu. There were apple orchards and hog farms in the local area at that time, according to the museum’s executive director, Harriet Gerard Clark.

The staff of Raynham Hall expressed excitement that the fortuitous discovery arrived just in time for the holidays. Also, in great anticipation was Betsy Davidson, who was at the museum to plan a press event for U.S. Rep. Thomas Suozzi. “Tom is a history buff, and he will absolutely love seeing this,” Davidson said.

Using the diary and corroborating it with newspaper articles has provided a gateway for Raynham Hall to contribute to revisionist history — in this case, setting the record straight on New York’s earliest Thanksgiving.

“Well, there goes Claire again, but it’s wonderful to always be mining information from the gold mine of historical archives,” Clark said.

Bellerjeau laughed off the compliment and said, “When you’re a relevant museum that’s vibrant and really interested about how the past relates to the present, you just have to keep looking and thinking of questions.”