Fourth of July BBQs: A Brief History

A tradition that dates back to the first Independence Day celebrations

By Robert F. Moss

The Fourth of July is upon us, and across the country Americans will be celebrating with barbecue. Pit-cooked meat has been a part of the holiday for a long time, particularly in the South—a tradition that stretches back to the very first Independence Day celebrations.

In honor of the holiday, I thought it would be worth pulling a little material out of the old research files about 4th of July barbecues from the old days. The surprising thing about these celebrations is how formal and standardized they became. Town after town celebrated the Fourth in almost exactly the same way. The tradition started in the South, but as settlers moved west into the frontier territories, they took the holiday customs with them, making July Fourth barbecues not just a Southern tradition but an American one.

On 9 July 1808 Miller’s Weekly Messenger of Pendleton, South Carolina, reported the July 4th celebration at Occoney Station in the mountainous western part of the state. Following a parade by the local militia, “a short address suited to the occasion was delivered by the Rev. Mr. ANDREW BROWN; after which they marched to an agreeable and natural arbor, where, in the company with a number of others, they partook of an elegant barbecue.” Occoney (now spelled Oconee) was a newly-settled frontier district, and the newspaper correspondent wrote that, “It was a sight highly pleasing, to see such respectable members meet for the first time in this remote place, to celebrate the anniversary of our national existence.”

The naturalist John James Audubon, traveling in Kentucky in the early part of the century, was a guest at a similar Fourth of July event, which he described in Delineations of American Scenery and Character. The frontier celebration was organized by the community, with area farmers donating the provisions “for the common benefit”—including ox, ham, venison, turkeys, and other fowls—and helping to clear a large area in the woods for the barbecue grounds. The day began with a cannon salute and a patriotic oration, the the company proceeded to the tables for the feast, which was followed by a series of toasts and dancing that continued until sundown.

Most frontier barbecues were free to all comers, but a few were hosted by individuals who charged admission and looked to turn a profit. The following advertisement appeared in a Lexington, Kentucky newspaper in June 1815:


The subscribed respectfully informs the citizens of Fayette and the adjoining counties, that he will prepare an elegant Barbacue Dinner, on the Fourth of July, at his own house, on the Limestone road, nine miles from Lexington. . . . The subscriber furnishes foreign liquors of the best quality for the LADIES—the gentlemen will have free access to the use of domestic liquors. Tickets of admittance, two dollars—there will be no expense nor personal trouble omitted to render his entertainment brilliant and interesting.Commercial events such as this one seem to have been the exception, not the rule. It would be another century before barbecue became a regular commercial enterprise (in the form of barbecue restaurants).

Most July 4th celebrations were not hosted by a single individual but rather were organized by a “Committee of Arrangements.” This committee generally consisted of three to five men who were elected at a public gathering, and they were usually prominent local citizens such as planters, lawyers, and doctors.

Communal barbecues, drinking, orations, toasts, and dancing were typical of early frontier celebrations, and they soon became part of the holiday ritual in settled towns, too. By the 1820s Independence Day celebrations had become standardized throughout the Carolinas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Newspaper accounts of these events read almost like boilerplate. The day began with the citizens of the surrounding region gathering to form a procession. Led by local militia units in uniform, the community would march to a central location—usually the courthouse or a church—for the day’s ceremonies. These opened with a prayer by a local minister, then the Declaration of Independence would be read aloud. Often, local musicians would play and sing patriotic songs. The ceremonies always concluded with an oration delivered by a prominent citizen on a topic such as the principles of the Revolution or the importance of the Constitution to civic life. After the proceedings, the citizens would retire to a shady grove for a large dinner, which usually featured barbecued pigs, sheep, and goats.

After the dinner, toasts would be made in celebration of Independence Day, the United States, and its leaders. These began with a series of “regular” toasts, usually thirteen in number, which were prepared in advance and given by prominent persons chosen for the honor. The subjects for the toasts varied from celebration to celebration, but they usually included The U.S. Constitution, prominent political leaders, and abstract patriotic principles such as “Political Liberty” and “The Right to Fight”. The thirteenth toast was almost always devoted to honoring American women (or, “The American Fair”, as it was usually phrased). As each toast was drunk, the crowd would respond, in the words of the Camden [S.C.] Journal in 1831, with “loud huzzas and the firing of guns.”

Once the prepared set of regular toasts was completed, “volunteer toasts” would follow—often as many as thirty or forty—from members of the community. In addition to celebrating war heroes and democratic ideals, these toasts often were directed toward contemporary political issues. At the 1824 celebration in Jackson, Tennessee, for example, the volunteer toasts included support for the country of Greece (“May it be sustained by the Eagle of America”), a plea for the people of the Western District to choose their candidates wisely at the next general election, and a call for the navigation of the Mississippi to remain free to the citizens of the United States and not entangled in any foreign partnerships. Most newspaper accounts of July 4th celebrations published transcriptions of the regular toasts and, in many cases, the volunteer ones as well.

As the number of toasts at these barbecues suggests, there was a lot of drinking going on, and the events were notorious for drunkenness and the violence that naturally came with it. Recalling the Fourth of July barbecues of his childhood in antebellum South Carolina, Dr. Samuel B. Latham noted that the local militia companies would attend the celebration at Caldwell Cross Roads and, after the drills, oration, and dinner, "hard liquor would flow; and each section would present its 'bully of the woods' in a contest for champion in a fist and skull fight. Butting, biting, eye gouging, kicking and blows below the belt were barred. It was primitive prize fighting."

Booze and July Fourth accidents go hand in hand, and there was no shortage of such incidents at early barbecues. In 1834 at the celebration in South Carolina's Union District, Washington Sample had his right hand blown off and his left arm broken when an old cannon, taken from the British during the revolution, discharged while he was reloading it. He had "neglected in his hurry to swab out the gun, and a burning cinder still inside came into contact with the new gunpowder being loaded," but there were only "some faint hopes of his life."

Rough as they were, Fourth of July barbecues had an important civic function beyond simple merrymaking. The entire community would come together at these events and—through the reading of Declaration and the patriotic orations—would reaffirm the guiding principles of the early republic. The toasts were both a celebration of the new country’s history and, in their commentary on current events, a form of political discourse.

So, when you are dropping a slab of ribs on your backyard grill or dropping by your local barbecue joint for a tub of pulled pork, you can rest assured that your July Fourth celebration is continuing a long, rich tradition of patriotic barbecues.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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