On a bitterly cold day in the winter of 1779, the Dr. Simeon Smith family celebrated a Revolutionary Thanksgiving in Sharon, Conn. Friends, relatives and wards joined them at the big meal, 36 in all. Servants served the food in the great hall of the new stone manor house.
The meal, though sumptuous, lacked some essential ingredients because of the war not too far from their home. British troops occupied New York City, and earlier that summer they had destroyed the saltworks and flour mill in Norwalk. There were no raisins, no beef, no wine, and salt and spices were scarce.
The 17-year-old niece of the host, Juliana Smith, described the meal in a letter to her cousin Betsey.
References to that letter appeared in print many times. Over the years, historians have taken Juliana’s Smith letter as evidence of a typical revolutionary-era Thanksgiving meal. But others have also questioned whether the letter actually existed because an imaginative writer made it up.
A Revolutionary Thanksgiving in Sharon
On Oct. 20, 1779, Samuel Huntington, president of the Continental Congress proclaimed Thursday, Dec. 9, 1779, a day of Thanksgiving. That year, it was Dr. Simeon Smith’s turn to host the meal. He and his brother, the Rev. Cotton Mather Smith, invited their friends the Livingstons to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. The patriotic Livingstons had taken refuge next door to the Smihs. They wanted to escape the Loyalists infesting their hometown in the Hudson River Valley.
Juliana, the reverend’s daughter, noted to cousin Betsey that the meal would be a novel experience for the Livingstons. The New Yorkers “had never seen a Thanksgiving dinner, having been used to keep Christmas day instead, as is the wont in New York Province.”
Juliana had the war very much on her mind. She told Betsey, “Our resistance to an unjust authority has cost our beautiful coast towns very dear the last year and all of us have had much to suffer.” The British had blockaded Long Island Sound and raiding parties had burned and pillaged patriot homes and supplies.
Connecticut’s governor, Jonathan Trumbull, had requisitioned cattle to send to the starving soldiers encamped in Morristown, N.J. There they endured one of the worst winters in memory – and they suffered more than at Valley Forge.
“Of course we could have no Roast Beef,” wrote Juliana. “None of us have tasted Beef this three years back as it all must go to the Army, & too little they get, poor fellows.”
However, a local Indian sachem had brought a deer to the Smith household, and so the revolutionary Thanksgiving in Sharon had plenty of meat.
“Nayquittymaw’s Hunters were able to get us a fine red Deer, so that we had a good haunch of Venisson on each table,” wrote Juliana.
“These were balanced by huge chines of roast pork at the other ends of the tables. Then there was on one a big roast turkey and on the other a goose, and two big pigeon pasties. There was an abundance of good vegetables of all the old sorts.”
Feeding a Crowd
The minister’s family brought dessert. “All the baking of pies & cakes was done at our house & we had the big oven heated & filled twice each day for three days,” wrote Juliana.
Invited to the meal were the six Livingstons, ”two grandmothers, handsome old ladies, Uncle and Aunt Simeon at one table, father and mother at the other, five boys and girls,” she wrote. There were also seven young students, five of whom were orphans, Juliana’s Uncle Paul and his family of five, cousins Phin and Poll and “four old ladies with no homes or children. “
The servants set up two tables in the great dining room, which measured 30 feet by 22 feet. The fireplace at one end could hold seven people. Wrote Juliana,
The day was bitter cold and when we got home from meeting, which father did not keep over long by reason of the cold, we were glad eno’ of the fire in uncle’s dining hall, but by the time the dinner was one half over those of us who were on the fire side of one table was forced to get up and carry our plates with us around to the far side of the other table, while those who had sat there were as glad to bring their plates around to the fire side to get warm. All but the old ladies who had a screen put behind their chairs.
A New Food Item at the Revolutionary Thanksgiving in Sharon
The meal featured something new, a vegetable gaining popularity in the colonies: celery. Juliana did not believe Betsey had yet seen it. Celery had been introduced in England less than a century previously. John Evelyn, an English writer, wrote in 1699 that “was formerly a stranger with us,” and belongs in the “middle of the Grand Sallet [salad], for its “high and grateful taste.” It got so popular in the late 19th century that no fancy hotel menu was complete without it.
“Uncle Simeon imported the seed from England just before the war and this year there was enough for table use,” wrote Juliana. “It is called Sellery & you eat it without cooking. It is very good served with meats.”
At the end of the meal came the raisinless dessert. Wrote Juliana, “neither love nor [paper] money could buy raisins, but our good red cherries dried without the pits did almost as well.”
“Our mince pies were good, although we had to use dried cherries as I told you, and the meat was shoulder of venison instead of beef. The pumpkin pies, apple tarts and big Indian puddings lacked for nothing save appetite by the time we had got round to them.
Cider and Boiled Suet Pudding
“Of course we had no wine. Uncle Simeon has still a cask or two, but it must all be saved for the sick, and indeed, for those who are well, good cider is a sufficient substitute. There was no plum pudding, but a boiled suet pudding, stirred thick with dried plums and cherries, was called by the old name and answered the purpose. All the other spice had been used in the mince pies, so for this pudding we used a jar of West India preserved ginger which chanced to be left of the last shipment which Uncle Simeon had from there; we chopped the ginger small and stirred it through with plums and cherries. It was extraordinary good.”
Her older brother, John Cotton Smith, attended Yale. He rode home for the holiday and brought an orange to each of the grandmothers. They weren’t that good, wrote Juliana, because they froze in his saddle bags.
“Uncle Simeon was in his best mood, and you know how good that is!” she wrote. “He kept both tables in a roar of laughter with his droll stories of the days when he was studying medicine in Edinborough.” He, Uncle Paul and Father sang hymns, and then they all sang one. “Afterwards my dear father led us in prayer, remembering all absent friends before the Throne of Grace, and much I wished that my dear Betsey was here as one of us, as she had been of yore.”
The family didn’t get up from the table until it got quite dark. Then they got round the fire, cracked nuts, sang songs and told stories. [N]”obody can exceed the two grandmothers at telling tales of all the things they have seen themselves, and repeating those of the early years in New England, and even some in old England, which they had heard in their youth from their elders,” she wrote.
Did the Revolutionary Thanksgiving in Sharon Happen?
After the war, the Livingstons returned to New York, Juliana married Jacob Radcliff, a promising young lawyer who would serve three terms as mayor of New York. John Cotton Smith would graduate from Yale College and later served as a congressman from Connecticut and governor of the state.
His descendant, Helen Evertson Smith, claimed to have found Juliana’s letter about the revolutionary Thanksgiving in Sharon copied into her diary. Smith wrote that she found it in the old family manor house among papers “tucked away under the eaves in old baskets of Indian make, or in open pine-wood boxes, and even in barrels.” She included them in a book published in 1901, Colonial Days and Ways.
The New York Historical Society in 2011 questioned the authenticity of the letter in its From the Stacks blog. At the time Helen Smith published the book, finding a cache of old papers was a popular fictional device. The language Juliana used seemed suspiciously 20th century. Perhaps most damning: Juliana’s actual diary has never been unearthed. “Add the definite literary polish of Smith’s writing and that she published short stories in addition to her historical works and the suspicions mount.”
However, concludes the unnamed author, “we should probably give Smith the benefit of the doubt.”
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Simeon Smith House By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50499340.