The November feast, with turkeys and cranberries, is a creation myth, starring Miles Standish, William Bradford, and the Wampanoag chief, Massasoit. But the figure who most powerfully created American consciousness, coming a little later, was one who risked everything to rebel against what was begun in Plymouth. What we celebrate on Thanksgiving isn’t the theocracy of Massachusetts, but the ideas of Roger Williams, a Puritan who defended the right, one could say, to be religiously impure.
That would make Roger Williams just one more part of Rhode Island’s history with this most American of holidays.
For starters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe that famously helped the Pilgrims lived not only in Massachusetts but also in what is now eastern Rhode Island; the Narragansett Tribe had a harvest feast of their own known as Nickommoh.
Thanksgiving didn’t really take locally at first, according to a 1904 article in The New England Magazine:
The earliest mention of Thanksgiving in the records of Rhode Island Plantation is 1687. But attempts to create Thanksgiving Day in Rhode Island did not prove very successful. Whether the people were ungrateful or only stubborn is not known, but it is said that when Governor [Edmund] Andros ordered them to appear, to celebrate certain days, which he set apart as days of thanksgiving, the order was so contemptuously carried out that several persons were arrested for disobedience of the King’s ordinances.
Rhode Island has given Thanksgiving headaches to other leaders, too.
In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson remarked that he “regretted very much the late conduct of the legislature of Rhode Island,” which hadn’t joined the rest of New England in proclaiming a day of thanksgiving. And in 1939 Rhode Island’s Republican governor, William Vanderbilt III, was among those who refused to go along with FDR when he tried to move Thanksgiving up a week.
Rhode Island’s most famous contribution to Thanksgiving, though, has probably been its turkeys – most notably thanks to a Westerly farmer by the name of Horace Vose (1840-1913), “the poultry king.”
Vose was “known all over the United States as the man who has furnished the Thanksgiving Turkey to every President from Grant to Roosevelt,” The New York Times reported in 1906. The White House Historical Association has more details:
Vose began raising turkeys with his uncle in the mid-1850s and in 1873 sent a splendid Meleagris gallopavo to President Ulysses S. Grant, beginning a tradition that would last for over four decades as presidents, their families and guests enjoyed Vose’s Thanksgiving and Christmas largess.
After looking over the best flocks in Rhode Island and Connecticut, Vose, a major poultry supplier to the New York market, selected the presidential bird with great care. Vose’s chosen turkeys never weighed fewer than 30 pounds and sometimes topped the scales at 50 pounds.
Vose always slaughtered and dressed the birds and then shipped them express in a box addressed to the president at the White House. Occasionally Vose had competition. In 1913, former congressman South Trimble of Kentucky, then Clerk of the House of Representatives, sent a turkey to President Wilson; Trimble’s turkey weighed 30 pounds in contrast to Vose’s 37, but Trimble claimed his bird, which had been fed a diet that included red peppers, was much more flavorsome. It is not known which bird won the “honor” of gracing the Wilson table that Thanksgiving Day.
When Vose passed away in December 1913 (just a few weeks after Thanksgiving) it made the front page of the old Providence Evening News, which eulogized Vose as being “known throughout the land as the purveyors of turkeys for White House Thanksgiving dinners since the time of President Grant.”
As for me? I’m thankful for you, dear readers. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
(clippings: Hedges Herald of Hedgesville, Montana, Nov. 18, 1913; New York Tribune, Nov. 23, 1902)
A version of this post originally ran in 2012.