THE FIRST THANKSGIVING DAY CELEBRATION

IN CALIFORNIA

The exact date of the first Thanksgiving celebration in California is not a matter of record. Nor do the old-timers remember in what year it took place. It may have been as early as 1848. It is very likely, however, that it was in the year 1849 and the place one of the many mining camps that had just spring into existence. There were many New Englanders here at the time and it is not probable that the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers would have allowed their most important and time-honored day to slip by unnoticed.

On the year 1850 the records stand out clear and distinct, and that must be considered the first celebration. In addition to this, a number of the old-timers have dim memories of festive doings on the last day of November in that year, because Governor Peter H. Burnett issued a proclamation declaring it a legal holiday. Official business was suspended and the day was observed by all men from New England and many others who did not object to a good time. A great many of the events of that day have never been recorded and a great many more have been forgotten, but from such accounts as do exist it appears that it was surely a day of festivity.

To many of the men who came to the coast on the tidal wave of the gold fever Thanksgiving day was a new thing. The majority of these men hailed from the Southern and Middle States and from Europe and did not take kindly to the Puritanical celebration. Some of them ridiculed it and a few of the writers of the time objected to it as a piece of hypocrisy. But the pioneers were tolerant men as a rule, and when the New Englanders determined to celebrate they met with no obstacle. It is also recorded that when the others found that Thanksgiving celebration meant considerable eating and drinking they inclined to the belief that it was not such a bad thing after all, and concluded to take part in it.

There may have been fifty Thanksgiving celebrations on November 30, 1850. Old-timers remember that the "Yankees" in all camps threw down their picks and shovels and had as good a time as the circumstances would permit of. The majority of them didn’t have turkey, unless they happened to live in those sections where the wild birds could be killed at that time. Most of them would have been satisfied with a little fresh beef. Deer was a great luxury, and pork or mutton among the things longed for. In most of the camps where Thanksgiving was celebrated jackrabbit was considered pretty good. In those days the boys didn’t look down on the gray jumpers with the contempt that people now display toward the animal that is now considered a pest.

Thanksgiving day 1850 was a cold day all over the State. It was clear and dry, but in the mountains a little snow had fallen. This, of course, only made it seem more like home to the boys from the East, and they were correspondingly delighted. They hauled in plenty of wood the day before, so that they had nothing to do but celebrate and watch the jackrabbits cook to a turn. The rabbits were always cooked whole, a certain member of the party being vested with the honor of chef, whose duty it was to see that it was properly basted and turned occasionally.

While scenes of festivity were going on in many of the camps all over the State there were others where the boys did not know that there was such a day as Thanksgiving. George K. Fitch was in the diggings at the time; and declares that the day passed without his knowledge that it was a holiday. The Governor’s proclamation did not reach his camp, and if it had the chances are that no attention would have been paid to it, as there were no New Englanders for several miles around. When the news came that some of the boys over the ridge had been celebrating considerable surprise was expressed.

On the evening of November 30, 1850, the first official celebration of Thanksgiving day in California was observed in Sacramento, and it was a most elaborate affair. Governor Burnett had issued his proclamation a few days previously, and all the New England men in the place at once got together and formed plans for celebrating. They called their organization the Sons of New England, and held a banquet in the dining-room of the Columbia Hotel. The decorations of the hall on this occasion were by far the most elaborate that had ever been attempted in the State. The walls were hung with bunting, and flags and shields containing the names of the States were placed in the form of a frieze.

Everybody was invited to be present at this feast, whether they came from New England or not. The menu was a most superb one, and contained forty different dishes and eight kinds of wine. There was everything that could be obtained in the best restaurants in any part of the world, and nobody who participated had need to long for turkey or pumpkin pie, or anything else for that matter.

As it happened, Hardin Biglow died a few days previous to Thanksgiving day, and Governor Burnett came up from Monterey to attend the funeral. This brought him to Sacramento just in time to be present at the celebration. He was given the place of honor at the table, and expressed his delight at the fact that he was able to attend the first Thanksgiving celebration which had ever been proclaimed by a Governor of California.

On this occasion K. M. Berry acted as president of the evening. Rev. Mr. Benton asked a blessing and the banquet proceeded. J. W. Cartwright acted as toastmaster. The festivities were kept up until midnight, when, the next day being Sunday, the first official Thanksgiving celebration in the history of the State was brought to a close.

It is not known that anybody who attended that celebration is alive to-day. There may be, but as the list of guests is not complete they could not be located. in the largest cities of California, such as San Francisco, San Jose and Monterey, some attempt was made at observing Thanksgiving by the families. Those who could afford it had turkey, but that is about as far as it went. The stores did not close generally, but business was noticeably slack. The few churches held services out of respect to the gubernatorial proclamation, but nothing on a large scale was attempted.

In San Francisco, the French restaurants prepared a Thanksgiving dinner and managed to get a little more custom than usual. The men here were glad to take part in everything that shower signs of producing a good time.

"I well recollect my first Thanksgiving day in Dan Francisco," said Joseph A. Coolidge. "There was nothing very remarkable about it, but of course we had to celebrate by eating turkey. I bought one, a small one, and paid $16 for it. But it was young and alive. I bought it several days before and gave it in charge of a French cook to fatten. He stuffed it alive until it was as plump as a partridge. It made my mouth water to look at it. The day before Thanksgiving he picked it alive and allowed it to run around without any feathers. But when that turkey was served I tell you it was fit for Lucullus. I don’t know where it came from, but I was satisfied with it. I think that by the time I paid the cook for preparing that turkey and the extras that were necessary to go with it, together with a few other things requisite for the dinner, it must have cost at least $50. But it was worth it, and I didn’t leave much."

Picture: JACKRABBIT DINNER WAS GOOD ENOUGH IN 1850.

The San Francisco Call, Sunday, November 22, 1896, p. 17.

Reprinted in the Holy Trinity Cathedral LIFE, Vol. 4, No. 3, November 1996