On the Prairie
Frontier life in the 19th century offered challenges to pioneers, but also provided opportunities to give thanks.
In the 1930s, George Strester remembers his father, a preacher who tried farming in Nebraska in 1873. The Strester family celebrated a memorable Thanksgiving when their livestock ate a crop of rotten onions:
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.
A Close Call
In 1938, Mrs. Hulda Esther Thorpe remembers the dangers that settlers faced on the prairie in the 1800s, and the many reasons settlers had for giving thanks:
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.
This is one of many stories Mrs. Thorpe remembers from her pioneer childhood. To read more, in American Life Histories, 1936-1940, search on Hulda Esther Thorpe to find the document entitled, "Mrs. Hulda Esther Thorpe."
The Worker's Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving didn't always mark a joyous respite from work. Here, in a Depression-era interview, a marble worker in Vermont tells the story of a Thanksgiving Day uprising at the Proctor marble quarry, staged during the early days of labor organizing:
The time we took over Proctor we showed them our strength, though. It was Thanksgiving, and mighty little Thanksgiving for some of us. Some of the men and women wanted to go out to Proctor while the Proctors were enjoying their big dinner, and show them how little their workers had to be thankful for. I tried to discourage them, but when I found they were determined to go, I went along, with a lot of my friends, to keep them from getting tough. So hundreds of us landed into Proctor . The sheriffs and deputies tried to stop us, and we got the bunch of them and locked them up and took the town over. Then we paraded all afternoon through the streets. The next day the company unloaded a gang of deputies into Proctor and from then on nobody could stand on the corner, or collect in even twos or threes, without being busted up.
To read more about marble quarrying in Vermont in the early 20th century, in American Life Histories, 1936-1940, search on marble Vermont. Among the documents retrieved will be Interview No. 7 from which the above excerpt was taken.
Thanksgiving in the Civil War
A grim reminder that war does not stop for holidays is captured in this photograph from Selected Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865 taken by the Mathew Brady photographers.