20 Nov 2023


Lost Capitol Hill: Thanksgiving on the Hill

With Thanksgiving in the air, it seemed to behoove me to look at how Capitol Hill has celebrated this holiday over the years. The easiest way to research this was in the Library of Congress’s huge collection of newspapers from throughout our history.

It turns out that little happens on Capitol Hill on Thanksgiving. This is unsurprising, since the members of Congress tend to want to spend this week in their home districts (which worked to our advantage last week, when the fear of missing out convinced enough members to pass a quick continuing resolution to keep the government open – if only until early next year)

Mainly, the newspapers from years past in this season have announced a plethora of church services for every possible denomination. Here on Capitol Hill, it seems to have been tradition for a number of churches to band together to have only large service at one location. Presumably better than having a meager turnout at each of the churches.

Otherwise, the only mention of Thanksgiving was in the society pages, where important residents were honored with brief synopsis of their party and those guests that they had entertained.

None of this was terribly interesting. Until I got to the following article in the Alexandria Gazette of November 29, 1875 and entitled “A Cocking Main”

The Washington Chronicle says: The question of the superiority of Capitol Hill game stock and that of Georgetown was settled on Thanksgiving Day at Oxen [sic] Hill, opposite Alexandria, in favor of Capitol Hill, the contest being what is known in chicken parlance as a “main” of cocks, each side to show fifteen birds, Richard Lee and Charles Walker representing Capitol Hill and Georgetown respectively. A large number of the sporting fraternity were present. Lee came out winner, killing twelve birds out of the fifteen.

While it is certainly tradition that a large number of fowl are killed every year for Thanksgiving, it is usually in a less bloodthirsty way. For a ‘cocking main’ is nothing but a cock fight, as it turns out. In this case, 15 fights, one after the other, so Lee did none of the killing, instead he supplied the birds that did the killing.

Cockfight in New Orleans, ca 1871 (LOC)

‘Oxen Hill’ obviously does not exist – that should be Oxon Hill, a name it has had since its inception, because the area looked like Oxford to its original owner, Thomas Addison. It is unclear who Richard Lee is. While five men with that name are listed in that year’s city directory, none live on Capitol Hill. And no-one named Charles Walker is listed as living in Georgetown. Looks like these two will not have to answer for what they did 150 years ago.

Everyone else? Enjoy your Thanksgiving and please do not force any birds to fight each other. We at The Hill is Home thank you.

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