Special Collections and Archives blog

Thanksgiving in the Archives

For many, this week is shorter on work and lengthier on planning for/experiencing Thanksgiving. Whether it be through the gathering of friends and family, a game of football, shopping (in store/online), or binge-watching a newly-discovered television program, this is meant to be a time to unwind and gear up for December.

In recognition of Thanksgiving, Special Collections and Archives (SCA) would like to answer the fictional (but perhaps soon to be realized) research question: “What do you have here about Thanksgiving and such?”

To answer this question, we have to first pose a followup question about a time frame that is of interest to our patron. While information related to pre-colonial (thus ‘written’) cultures in the Southwest is sparse, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that indigenous people have lived here for thousands of years and were not documenting themselves using media (paper, photography, film) that colonial society introduced and with which we have now become accustomed. Colonial history in the Southwest is comparatively recent on a global scale, beginning with Spanish exploration in the 1530s; Mexican independence from Spain in the 1810s; American acquisition of the territory of Arizona in 1848; and finally Arizona statehood in 1912. Considering Thanksgiving in the United States hails back to the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in 1620, most documentation related to celebrating the holiday between 1621 and 1848 will reside elsewhere and mostly with repositories on the east coast that document the history of the American colonies. It is also worth noting that photography as a medium had just been born in 1839 with the advent of daguerreotype technology, which would open up many new and exciting ways of conveying information.

Briefly, SCA has primary source material that describes the celebration of Thanksgiving from the mid-to-late-19th century to present, with the vast majority covering life in the mid-20th century to present. Start your search for digitized content at our main page here.


Letters to Samuel E. Day, Sr., from Dan Mitchell [constructed title], 1908. MS.89: Day Family Collection.

Thanksgiving Day 1986 Our Lady of Guadalupe, Father Dobrowski. NAU.PH.2013.11.1.50. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church Collection.

Thanksgiving Day, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Father Dobrowski, 1986. NAU.PH.2013.11.1.50. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church Collection.

Our fictional patron may ask about written or oral primary source accounts of Thanksgiving in the Southwest and for that several interesting results can be found. Numerous audio and video files document oral histories in which narrators discuss Thanksgiving, either personally or factually. Many of these speakers were featured as part of the Flagstaff Public Library Oral History Project (1975-77) or were recorded as part of SCA’s 1998-2000 United Indian Traders Association Collection. Willie Coin (in 1975) describes his perspective on the holiday as a Hopi person and wonders why its significance has faded away so much. In 1976, Kathryn Rucker reminisced about the amount of family time involved with Thanksgiving as compared to Christmas. In 1980, Myrna Hillyard recalls being asked to speak about the Apache and their first Thanksgiving. In 1999, Mary Bailey described how she would cook Thanksgiving dinner for the Navajo and that they would refer to it as “Little Christmas.” In 2000, Colina Yazzie remembers her mother’s recollection of giving birth to her on Thanksgiving day. In 2008, Nat White discussed a-then yearly “Turkey Trot” that took place at Buffalo Park in Flagstaff.

While digitized content is a great beginning to our patron’s search on such a broad topic, it would also be very helpful to do a search at Arizona Archives Online for any material that may¬†not have been digitized. A simple search for the word “Thanksgiving” among SCA’s collections reveal 13 unique collections in our repository that cover myriad related subjects. Our patron, upon review of these finding guides, may request that a series of boxes and folders be pulled in order to review their contents for relevance.

Of course, a robust search strategy would not be complete without a review of any publications (published books etc.) on the topic of Thanksgiving that are found through the library’s main catalog.

We hope that these search strategies can be applied successfully across a range of topics of interest to our patrons. We enjoy the challenge of–and being engaged with–finding new and exciting historic information that is being interpreted and disseminated in multiple ways in archival repositories across the world.

Happy Thanksgiving from SCA!


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