Joy Magazine

Thanksgiving Pioneer Style

Turkey-day traditions haven't changed much over the years

Although Thanksgiving Day football games and holiday shopping sprees would probably confuse our pioneer ancestors, they'd be happy to see we've still kept their traditions alive.

Families and friends still gather around a table that's overloaded with things we love to eat — and things we really shouldn't.


• Thanksgiving didn't become a national holiday until 1863, when U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation since George Washington issued his in 1789. Until then, the day of thanks was proclaimed by local governors and government officials.

• Territorial Gov. John Gaines proclaimed Oregon's first official Thanksgiving in 1852. Although issued in November, the proclamation designated Thanksgiving Day as the second Thursday in December.

• Oregon's second Thanksgiving came in 1859, the first year of statehood. Gov. John Whiteaker, described as a man "who does not believe in Thanksgivings," was pressured into a proclamation by 76 women living in Oregon City. Thanksgiving that year was observed on Dec. 29.

• When Whiteaker's term as governor ended in 1862, celebrations resumed.

• After Lincoln's 1863 proclamation, proclamations from Oregon governors usually choose the same date.

• Oregon had two Thanksgivings in 1893. Gov. Sylvester Pennoyer resented what he thought was interference in state affairs by President Grover Cleveland. Pennoyer proclaimed Nov. 23 for his Thanksgiving, knowing that the president would declare Thanksgiving for one week later, the traditional date of the holiday at the time.

• In 1941, Congress designated Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November.

Adults remember the old days with old friends, and children — hands sticky from cakes, pies and candy — romp until they drop.

Ministers and priests still call the faithful to morning sermons to give thanks for the good things in their lives. And at the end of the day, those who came from far away promise to return again.

For the Oregon pioneer, Thanksgiving was "the" year's event, even bigger than Christmas or Fourth of July. Just as it did for the Pilgrims of 1621, this joyful feast celebrated the harvest and the promise of survival through another winter.

Preparations began weeks in advance. Young folk gathered pumpkins, squash, apples and pears and then joined their neighbors in daylong "husking bees," when corn was shucked and hung to dry.

The "requisites of Thanksgiving dinner" in the 1860s sound familiar, even today. Oregon cranberries, mince and pumpkin pies and "the best baked beans ever made west of Boston" composed the feast.

Everyone wanted a traditional turkey, but because they were hard to find, wild migrating geese were a favorite substitute. Pioneers swore the birds tasted as good as any turkey ever did.

By the mid-1880s, the turkey-supply problem was solved. Southern Oregon had become the center of the state's domestic turkey farms, and local gobblers rode the railroads to markets from Portland to San Francisco.

There were so many turkeys available for Thanksgiving that when Alice Hanley's brothers came from Eastern Oregon to Hanley Farm near Jacksonville, she had already smoked and baked 21 turkeys for what must have been one gigantic family reunion.

With no televised sports, the tradition was to eat so much that, after the meal, everyone would have to participate in some sort of sport, just to ease their digestion.

There was baseball, wrestling and turkey shoots, and those too old or too timid for strenuous activity might pitch a casual game of horseshoes or watch a horse race in a nearby field.

The women and girls were stuck with the after-dinner household chores before they could enjoy the rest of the day, and in many of today's families, that probably hasn't changed much at all.

In the evening, there was almost always a musical performance to enjoy or a chance to dance in a nearby barn or town hall.

And when they woke up the next morning at 4 a.m., it wasn't so they could be first in line at the local department store. Chickens had to be fed, and cows were waiting to be milked.

For those early pioneers, only one thing was missing — the old, sweet home.

Forever leaving their old lives behind, they had crossed the plains to an isolated world. They would never see their Eastern relatives again and, of course, they missed them.

"How many of the sweetest joys have been formed in the reunions of Thanksgiving Day?" asked a newspaper editor in 1861. "How many of us in Oregon have longed to go home on Thanksgiving?"

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