That one time in Michigan: When we were late to Thanksgiving

(Image via Tyler Donaghy on Unsplash)

By Karel Vega

November 22, 2023

Exploring the history and traditions of Thanksgiving in the Mitten.

Today’s trip down memory lane starts in the early 1800s, and will end with some Thanksgiving traditions unique to Michigan even today.

Thanksgiving Comes Late to Michigan

That one time in Michigan: When we were late to Thanksgiving

Lewis Cass, c. 1860-65 (Source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

The true origins of Thanksgiving are still widely debated, but historians believe the first form of the holiday likely took place in 1621 in Plymouth Colony (now in modern-day Massachusetts).

In the decade following America’s independence and foundation, the first Federal Congress asked the President to name a national day of thanks. So President George Washington did—proclaiming that Thursday, Nov. 26, 1789 was a “Day of Publick Thanksgivin.”

But here in Michigan, we were a bit late to the party.

According to Donald L. Wilcox, curator of books at the University of Michigan Clements Library, Michigan can trace its Thanksgiving roots to the early 1800s. It was a time beset by tragedy for our young territory.

In 1805—just months after Michigan had become a territory—a great fire ravaged Detroit. Since the city lacked a professional fire department, residents raced to the Detroit River with buckets to fight the flames. Almost everything in the city was destroyed.

Just a few years later, Michigan was the scene of the Battle of the River Raisin—it would prove to be one of the single deadliest battles for Americans during the War of 1812.

Although the situation seemed dire for the territory, things would begin picking up in the following years. Lewis Cass was appointed Governor of Michigan in 1813, infrastructure began improving, and the population saw a big boost throughout the next decade. In 1826, Michigan became a “second stage” territory, giving Michiganders the power to elect a territorial council and a non-voting delegate to Congress.

Following these big wins, on Nov. 4, 1829, Cass issued a proclamation marking Nov. 26 as a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” The proclamation was printed in the Detroit Gazette for all to see—several commemorative broadsides were also printed on satin. Fun fact: several copies of the original broadside are still in existence, including one you can find at the University of Michigan‘s Clements Library.

By the way—presidents who came after George Washington issued their own Thanksgiving proclamations, but the day and month varied. Thanksgiving was formally adopted as a federal holiday in 1941, to take place yearly on the fourth Thursday of November.

Read more about:

The Modern Michigan Thanksgiving

That one time in Michigan: When we were late to Thanksgiving

Brent Clodgio checks a Thanksgiving turkey while tailgating before an NFL football game between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears in Detroit Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Here in the Mitten, we‘re lucky to have certain traditions that set our Thanksgiving holiday apart from the rest of the US.

For nearly 100 years, America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit has delighted Michiganders young and old, with its mix of floats, marching bands, Big Heads, and Santa Claus himself.

And then, of course, there’s the Detroit Lions football game that fans look forward to every Thanksgiving. That tradition actually began in 1934 when George A. Richards—the Lions’ first owner—wanted to create a way to get more people to attend games. As the owner of a radio station, Richards also cleverly got NBC to sign a deal to broadcast the games. It worked—and today’s fans love the tradition, often incorporating Thanksgiving meals into their tailgates.

Also read: That one time in Michigan: When the Detroit Lions were champs

It’s important not to overlook the connection that the Native American community has with Thanksgiving. The fourth Thursday in November is also a National Day of Mourning, as a remembrance of the genocide that occurred across the country following the arrival of European settlers. Here in Michigan, some communities hold “ghost suppers” to mark a relative’s transition into the spirit world.

In a new lighthearted tradition, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer started asking Michiganders to name a turkey to be pardoned each year. In 2022—the first year of the state turkey pardon—”Mitch E. Gander” was selected as the name of the lucky bird. This year’s winner? Dolly Pardon.

However you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I am thankful to every ‘Gander for allowing me to bring you a small slice of Michigan’s history every week.


  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.


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