Fourth of July Barbecues

The story of an enduring American tradition

By Robert F. Moss

Fourth of July
A July 4th Celebration in 1876 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The Fourth of July is here again, and today across the country Americans will be celebrating with barbecue, even if their gatherings are a bit smaller and more subdued than in past years. Barbecue and the Fourth of July go hand and hand, and that’s been the case for a very long time, especially in the South. The linkage, in fact, goes all the way back to the early years of Independence Day celebrations.

In the years just after the Revolution, Americans celebrated Independence Day with public dinners, and in the South those dinners quickly grew into large outdoor barbecues. The surprising thing about these early celebrations is how formal and standardized they became., for town after town celebrated the Fourth in almost exactly the same way.

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 minister gave “a short address suited to the occasion.” The crowd then 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. An advertisement in a Lexington, Kentucky newspaper in 1815 invited the citizens of Fayette and adjoining counties to “an elegant Barbacue Dinner, on the Fourth of July, at his own house.” For a two dollar admission fee, he promised “foreign liquors of the best quality for the LADIES” and free “domestic liquors” for the gentlemen.” (Foreign liquors, we should note, would likely be imported brandy or gin, while the domestic was likely unaged corn whiskey.)

Ad from a Lexington, KY, newspaper, reprinted in the Dartmouth Gazette, July 12, 1815
Ad from a Lexington, KY, newspaper, reprinted in the Dartmouth Gazette, July 12, 1815

Commercial events such as this one seem to have been the exception, not the rule, though. It would be another century before barbecue became a regular commercial enterprise in the form of restaurants. Most July 4th celebrations 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 Journal in 1831, with “loud huzzas and the firing of guns.”

The Toasts from 1829 Fourth of July Barbecue, Barbourville, KY (Kentucky Reporter, July 22, 1829)
The Toasts from 1829 Fourth of July Barbecue, Barbourville, KY (Kentucky Reporter, July 22, 1829)

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 addressed 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 choose their candidates wisely at the next general election, and a call for free navigation of the Mississippi. 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 early barbecues 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 Fourth of July accidents have long gone hand in hand, too, even before fireworks were readily available. 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—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.

As settlers moved west, those from the Southern states took their barbecue traditions with them. Texans were celebrating Independence Day with barbecue by the late 1840s, and in 1858 the residents of Kansas City staged their first Fourth of July barbecue, just five years after the city's founding. It drew 3,000 attendees and featured a barbecued buffalo.

Whether you’re cooking a slab of ribs on your backyard grill or swinging by your local barbecue joint for some takeout chopped 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, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, 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.