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To pioneers, Thanksgiving was the thing

Remember Thanksgiving? Family and friends gathering around a table overloaded with things we love to eat — and things we really shouldn’t.

The children romp around the house, hands sticky from cakes, pies and candy. Ministers and priests call the faithful to morning prayers, where we give thanks for the good things in our lives. In the afternoon, it’s “Turkey Day” for high school, college and pro football teams.

And, at the end of the day, those who came from far away promise to return again.

This year is different. So many of those Thanksgiving moments, those family traditions, may have to wait until next year.

To the Oregon pioneer, Thanksgiving was THE event of year, even bigger than Christmas or the Fourth of July.

Just as it had for the pilgrims of 1621, this joyful feast celebrated the harvest and the promise of survival through another winter.

According to one 1860s newspaper, the “requisites of Thanksgiving dinner” sound familiar, even today. “Oregon cranberries, mince and pumpkin pies, and the best baked beans ever made west of Boston.”

Traditional turkeys were hard to find, so migrating geese were a favorite substitute. The pioneers swore the birds tasted as good as any turkey ever did.

By the mid 1880s, Southern Oregon had become the center of the state’s domestic turkey farms. Local gobblers rode the rails to markets, from Portland to San Francisco.

When Alice Hanley’s brothers came to the Hanley Farm from Eastern Oregon one year, she was ready with 21 smoked and baked turkeys. That must have been one gigantic family reunion.

The tradition was to eat so much that after the meal everyone had to participate in some sort of sport, just to “ease the digestion.”

There was baseball, wrestling and turkey shoots. 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.

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

When they woke up the next morning, somewhere around 4 a.m., it wasn’t to be first in line at the local department store. Chickens were hungry and cows were waiting to be milked.

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

Forever leaving their old life behind, they had crossed the Plains to an isolated world. They would never see their eastern relatives again, and, of course, they missed them all.

“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?”

Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the first national Thanksgiving proclamation since George Washington issued his in 1789.

Territorial Governor John Gaines proclaimed Oregon’s first official Thanksgiving in 1852.

Oregon’s second Thanksgiving came in 1859. Governor John Whitaker, “a man who does not believe in Thanksgivings,” was pressured into proclaiming one by 76 tenacious Oregon women. When his term as governor ended in 1862, celebrations resumed.

Oregon had two Thanksgivings in 1893. Governor Sylvester Pennoyer resented what he called interference in state affairs by President Grover Cleveland. Pennoyer proclaimed Nov. 23 as Thanksgiving Day, knowing that the president would declare Thanksgiving a week later, the traditional date of the holiday at the time.

In 1941, Congress finally designated Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. And so it is.

Here’s hoping your Thanksgiving this year is one to remember — in a good way.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.