Most people are familiar with the Thanksgiving story of our pilgrim forefathers (even if not always the most accurate story) but what about the Thanksgiving stories of pioneers living in the wild and unruly west of the 19th century? The 1800’s brought about a great migration of homesteading pioneers across North America. People who sold all they had, loaded up in wagons, and crossed the “Mighty Mississip” to venture into the great plains. Some ventured across the Rockies and some all the way to the west coast of California. Their reasons were as varied as their backgrounds. Their journeys were wrought with hardship, danger, and hunger. Death was a constant companion. Some turned back in order to escape the hardships before they died, but a fraction of those hearty and brave enough to stay the course found comfort in trying to carve out their own corner of the world. What were their Thanksgiving celebrations like? Did they even have anything to be thankful for? Perhaps true thanksgiving in the face of adversity is best told through their stories and, in some cases, their own words.
Thanksgiving an Un-official Holiday
During most of the 19th century, Thanksgiving was not an official holiday. It had started as tradition in the New England states and was widely celebrated there and into the mid-West. The actual date of the holiday was left to the governing body of whatever state or region a pioneer happened to be in. The dates could vary widely from September through December, although most traditionally celebrated sometime in November. It was not until the middle of the century that a movement, led in part by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, began to take hold and shape the holiday. Eventually, an official proclamation by President Lincoln in 1864, started a precedent that succeeding presidents would follow until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt set an official date for the now national holiday of Thanksgiving. Because of this un-official status, pioneers in the mid-west were left to their own devices to determine when the governor of the state or territory set the date. Pioneers in the south would not began to observe the holiday in a formal fashion until well after the Civil War.
With the Thanksgiving tradition’s birth in New England it is no wonder that turkeys, pumpkins, and cranberries would become staples of the holiday. They were regional foods that were harvested and gathered around the time that Thanksgiving was celebrated. An abundant harvest would mean a hearty feast. Those pioneers moving from New England carried those traditions with them. Wild turkeys were present on the frontier and could be harvested from the land but perhaps the thankfulness came when you were actually able to enjoy the turkey as recalled by Mrs. Hulda Esther Thorpe. “One of the best Thanksgiving dinners we ever knew of was when a family of settlers had their nice wild turkey dinner taken by the Indians, who came in silently and just shoved the folks back and eat it up.
They did not harm the white people though and after they were gone the women made a big corn bread and with what few things the Indians left, they had a feast, the best as the daughter tells, that she ever eat. This was because they were so happy and thankful that the Indians spared them.” (Excerpt from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940, a public government work).
Sometimes you made due with what was available as recalled by George Strester.
“Father said we’ll have to have something beside vegetables to eat, so he decided to butcher the cow. She had gone dry anyway (probably because of eating so many onions) and was nice and fat and would make prime beef and enough to last all winter.
We children all shed a few tears when Old Broch was killed, for she was a family pet, but we had to have something to eat. That was the day before Thanksgiving, and the next day mother planned a real Thanksgiving feast — a large roast of meat with potatoes and carrots laid around it. Something we had not had for years. But there was a peculiar odor that filled the house while it was cooking. Mother said she might have spilled something on the stove which in burning, caused the stench.
The table was set and the roast brought on and how delicious it looked, and father, after giving thanks for the prosperous year and the many blessings that we had enjoyed, carved the roast, placing a liberal helping of meat, carrots and spuds on each plate. Mother took a bite and looked at father; he took a taste and looked at us kids. I took a mouthful and my stomach heaved, and horrors of horrors, there was that familiar taste of rotten onions. So our dinner was entirely spoiled and all we had to eat was johnny cake straight with nothing to put on it or go with it. Still father did not say any cuss words and though sorely tried, was still able to say ‘well, well, that surely is too bad.
Well we took the remains of Old Broch and buried them out in the field, and my little sisters laid flowers on her grave. Father decided then and there to quit farming, and although this all happened over 60 years ago, to this day I just can’t say that I’m very crazy about sorghum or onions.” (Excerpt from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940, a public government work).
Despite these hardships the pioneers of that time found something to give thanks for. In the case of the family in Mrs. Thorpe’s tale, they were simply thankful that they weren’t killed and enjoyed what feast they could gather up after the Native Americans had left them alone. Mr. Strester’s father didn’t curse their bad luck with the beef, but simply moved on.
Preparing the Meal
Lugging a large cast iron stove across the wild and unpredictable west was not a possibility for most pioneers, and while some did in fact have stoves, many of those who were new to an unsettled region had to make due with a fireplace in the common room (or in some cases, only room) of their small cabins or huts. Dinners were prepared over an open fire using spits to cook the meat (which was usually salt cured), cast iron dutch ovens, and cast iron pots to cook most of the other dinner items. Utensils were rudimentary in most cases, with exception to a metal ladle or spoon if one were lucky. Cooking a Thanksgiving meal, or any meal for that matter, was a process that started early in the day and involved a considerable amount of time and effort. Spices and milk were not on hand in the form that we have today. The cow had to be milked, butter had to be hand churned, animals had to be slaughtered, bread had to be made from scratch, and spices had to be hand ground with a mortar and pestle. Fires had to be ket burning and coals had to be tended. If you’ve never cooked with a dutch oven in coals I recommend trying it at least once. When you use your oven you’ll truly be thankful for gas and electricity.
Life on the frontier was hard. Warring Indian tribes often slaughtered settlers in their homes. Crops had to be planted by hand. Meat had to be hunted, dressed, and cured. Homes had to be built by hand, often by only the family with whatever resources were on hand. Winters on the plains were harsh with snow and sweeping winds that could prove fatal to settlers caught out in the open. Despite all these hardships, our pioneering homestead ancestors of the 19th century remained true to tradition and celebrated Thanksgiving, remembering that it was a time set aside to be thankful for the harvest, and in many of their cases, another year alive.
Happy Thanksgiving and God bless!