Thanksgiving on the Frontier

From Forty-Niner dinners to prison balls to fancy hotel meals.


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“This is Thanksgiving, which is celebrated by us by partaking of a dinner of wild ducks roasted, stewed quails, mince pie and a very fine watermelon just picked from the vines, all of which we heartily enjoyed.”

Wait, watermelon for Thanksgiving? Seems that’s what California Gold Rush merchant Stephen Chapin David recalled. Another Forty-Niner, Alfred T. Jackson, recalled his 1850 Thanksgiving: “All we did was to lay off and eat quail stew and dried apple pie.”

While many associate the first Thanksgiving as taking place at Plymouth Rock in 1621, Texans claim Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate celebrated it in April 1598. After running out of food and water, and being forced to seek out scarce desert vegetation, the 400-person expedition saw the Rio Grande as its salvation. Gaspar Perez de Villagrá wrote, “We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before. We were happy that our trials were over....”

Elizabeth Le Breton Gunn lived in Sonora, Mexico, with her family from 1851-61. Despite not being in the U.S., she celebrated Thanksgiving. “I baked...

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