I wanted to write about Thanksgiving in Oregon in the 1840s, but didn’t find anything specifically on that topic. I did, however, find some interesting information about the development of the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it in the United States. See here, here, here, and here.
From this history, I’ve extrapolated what I think happened when the emigrants reached Oregon after their arduous six-month journey.
We’ve all heard the story of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans having a feast shortly after they arrived in the New World, though this is mostly a myth. The legend of the first Thanksgiving feast did not become a staple of American folklore until after World War I.
The Pilgrims did bring a tradition of giving thanks to God for his divine providence. But it is unlikely that their early feasts consisted of turkey and cranberries, and they certainly did not have pumpkin pie. Some accounts say the Pilgrims held a feast of thanksgiving in 1621 in gratitude to God for their survival. Other accounts place it in 1637 and say that it celebrated the return of colonial hunters who had safely returned from murdering several hundred Pequot Indians.
Moreover, the Pilgrims might have been late to the table. There is some evidence that in 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé and the local tribe in St. Augustine, Florida, dined together after a Mass of gratitude for the Spaniards’ safe arrival in the New World.
Throughout our nation’s early history, recognition of Thanksgiving was mostly a state and local affair. George Washington proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, to recognize the successful conclusion of the War of Independence and the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. And although later presidents issued similar proclamations, for the most part, recognition of a thanksgiving holiday was up to state governors. Each state chose a different date to celebrate. Most governors chose late November or early December, but the holiday could be as early as September or as late as January.
Also, in the early years, Thanksgiving was mostly a New England tradition. George Washington was a Virginian, but the Southern states did not embrace the holiday until well past the middle of the 19th Century. It was New Englanders who spread the holiday from their northern colonies to Michigan, Ohio, and other “western” territories.
By the 1840s, the traditional New England menu of turkey, cranberries, potatoes, and pumpkin (and other) pies was in place, but recognition of the holiday still varied. Writer and editor Sarah Josepha Hale tried for many years to establish a national Thanksgiving holiday, similar to Independence Day. In 1846, she began a letter-writing campaign to fix a uniform date for Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November.
Her support for the Puritanical holiday became interwoven with the abolitionist movement and caused divisiveness between the North and South. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln agreed to Sarah Hale’s request and issued a Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863 that a uniform national date for the holiday was established. The last Thursday in November remained the national holiday until 1939. That year, Franklin Roosevelt set it on the fourth Thursday of November to extend the Christmas shopping season during the Great Depression.
Although I didn’t find any references to 1840s Thanksgiving feasts in Oregon, I did find several articles about the Californian celebration in 1850. There is speculation that gold miners from New England would have held Thanksgiving holidays in California in 1848 and ’49 also, and General Bennett Riley, California’s last military governor, issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation in 1849.
But the first real account of a Californian Thanksgiving is in 1850. That year, Governor Peter Barnett issued a proclamation, and the governor and his guests had a sumptuous repast at the Columbia Hotel. The holiday was still viewed as primarily a New England tradition, but it had made it to the West Coast.
If California was celebrating by 1850, surely there must have been at least a few Thanksgiving feasts in Oregon by that time also. It is likely that Thanksgiving celebrations in Oregon would have been a mixed bag—New Englanders might have had the tradition firmly in their families, but Southern emigrants might not have recognized it.
In addition, although the emigrants might have rejoiced to have reached Oregon safely, their focus upon their arrival would likely have been on finding shelter and provisions for the winter. There are accounts of feasts on Abernethy Green in Oregon City when new emigrants camped there, but not of regular Thanksgiving celebrations.
Still, I think of the Oregon emigrants celebrating their survival and the bounty of the new land they claimed. Surely they had cause for thanksgiving.
Whatever your Thanksgiving traditions, I hope your celebrations are happy and safe.