The anniversary of the first Thanksgiving was not nationally celebrated until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared a day of “thanksgiving and praise” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. However, Thanksgiving Day was already being celebrated in what would become West Virginia following an 1861 declaration by Governor Francis H. Pierpoint of the Union-loyal “Restored Government of Virginia” at Wheeling.
Pierpont watched the borderlands between the Union and Confederacy devolve into chaos but saw the celebration as a reason to be thankful despite the death and hatred by which so many families had been ruined.
Historian George W. Summers in 1934 published a summary of Pierpont’s declaration and support for the holiday, which continues to be celebrated with fervor in West Virginia, serving as an annual homecoming for many.
The following is an excerpt from an article by Summers published in his collection of early West Virginia history, “Pages from the Past.”
First Thanksgiving Day ever observed in West Virginia
The first thanksgiving proclamation in either Virginia or West Virginia, such as is now generally issued, not only by the president but by the governor of every state as well, was that of 73 years ago — November 14, 1861 — when Francis H. Pierpont, claimant to the governorship of Virginia, issued at Wheeling, seat of the “Restored Government” of Virginia, his proclamation calling on all the people of Virginia to observe Thursday, November 28, 1861, as a day of thanksgiving to God for his mercies to them during the current year.
The Civil War was under full headway; brother was fighting against brother, one part of Virginia was fighting against the other; the young men of the nation were being slain by thousands and tens of thousands in frequent battles; both North and South were being impoverished, if not starved; and all the borderland was being laid waste.
Yet, amid such conditions, Governor Pierpont, whose claim to the office was officially acknowledged and who was recognized by the United States authorities as the governor of Virginia, found cause for thanksgiving by the people of his state, and especially that part of it which was about to become the State of Kanawha, or West Virginia, as the constitutional convention finally agreed it should be called
“In the midst of war and its afflictions,” wrote Governor Pierpont in the first Thanksgiving proclamation ever issued in either Virginia or West Virginia, “we are more forcibly reminded of our dependence upon Divine Providence, and while in all we suffer we should own His chastening hand, we should be ready to acknowledge that it is of His mercy that we are not destroyed and that so many of the blessings of life are preserved to us. Seedtime and harvest have not failed; the early and the latter rains have fallen in their seasons, and the toil of the husbandman has been abundantly repaid. It is, therefore, becoming that, while we earnestly pray that the days of our affliction may be shortened, we should thankfully acknowledge the manifold mercies of which, nationally and individually, we are still the recipients.
“Now, therefore, I, Francis H. Pierpont, governor of Virginia, do hereby recommend to the good people of the Commonwealth the observance of Thursday, the 28th inst., as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings of the year, and of humble and fervent prayer that He will, in more abundant mercy, bring to a speedy end the heartburnings and civil strife which are now desolating our country, and restore to our Union its ancient foundations of brotherly love and just appreciation. And I do further recommend that all secular business and pursuits be, as far as possible, suspended on that day.
“In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the great seal of the Commonwealth to be affixed, at the city of Wheeling, this 14th day of November, in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and sixty-one, and of the Commonwealth the 86th.
“Francis H. Pierpont. By the governor, “L.A. Hagans, Secretary of the Commonwealth.”
The Parkersburg Gazette also thought that despite the horrors of warfare, the people of Virginia still had much to be thankful for, and in its first issue following Governor Pierpont’s proclamation, it commended him and concurred in his views that the people of Virginia still had much to be thankful for, despite the war.
“In a pleasant and felicitously worded proclamation,” said the Gazette, “Governor Pierpont has called upon loyal and true West Virginians to observe Thursday, November 28, as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God for the blessings he has vouchsafed to us during the past year. We have always had a sort of sneaking affection for our good Governor, but we confess to the soft impeachment that this takes us better than most of the proclamations that have issued from his pen. This smacks of real and true thankfulness to God, the giver of all good, for the many precious gifts he has bestowed upon us during the past year.
“It is true war has been among us. We have seen the dead and the dying, the wounded and the sick all around us. It is true that the voice of mourning for the departed, the slain, is all around us, scarcely a house being free from the sense of calamity, but how many things has the loving and Christian spirit to be thankful for!”
With the constitutional convention in session and plans already made for the creation of the State of Kanawha—later changed to West Virginia—the Wheeling Intelligencer of Nov. 28, 1861, published the following congratulation:
“Today will be observed as a day of thanksgiving in many of the loyal states of the country, including the state of Kanawha. In this city, the day will be observed by an almost entire suspension of business and most people will manifest their thankfulness in an appropriate manner. Some there are who can see nothing to be thankful for and would not acknowledge an obligation if they could see it ever so plain. Others will be thankful that they have an opportunity to drink whiskey and will avail themselves of it as abundantly as possible. Many will be thankful that they have nothing to do for twenty-four hours, without any thought or care of the great moral result sought to be obtained by the setting apart of the day. The sincere thanksgiving may be witnessed in the houses of worship and in the families of those who attend the same.”
Largest tree in West Virginia rises along Wheeling Creek
When George Washington first visited Point Pleasant in present-day West Virginia in 1770, he discovered a sycamore that measured 44 feet and 10 inches around—or roughly 14 feet across. That’s not quite the size of a 2020 Cadillac Escalade, but it’s close. You won’t find trees that size in West Virginia anymore, though you can still find some whoppers, and the largest tree in West Virginia, also a sycamore, isn’t that hard to find. In the valley of Wheeling Creek it stands, or leans, as the case may be, about 12 miles as the crow flies from the mouth of the creek on the Ohio River. Read the full story here.