Wisconsin’s early Thanksgiving history

By: - November 26, 2020 6:00 am
Lake Monona and the Peck cabin, site of Madison’s inaugural Thanksgiving meal, in 1838 (note teepee at left). But Native Americans and Europeans first met in Wisconsin to give eat and thanks two centuries earlier, following a dramatic rescue. (Wisconsin Historical Society: Image 2859)

Lake Monona and the Peck cabin, site of Madison’s inaugural Thanksgiving meal, in 1838 (note teepee at left). But Native Americans and Europeans first met in Wisconsin to eat and give thanks two centuries earlier, following a dramatic rescue. (Wisconsin Historical Society: Image 2859)

You may think you know the story: In the 1600s starving Europeans, new to the continent, were rescued with gifts of food from Native Americans, with whom they joined to give thanks.

Except this Thanksgiving story didn’t happen near Plymouth Rock. It happened in Wisconsin in 1659, just 38 years after the Pilgrims’ feast.

The Badger State has a long and rich Thanksgiving history. Mary Spielman Roller, a resident of what became Milwaukee’s South Side, even claimed to have introduced Wisconsin to “turkey as the Thanksgiving bird,” in 1835. She brought four of them and a cow from Buffalo, New York, when she settled in Milwaukee at the age of 18.

The bird is native to the state, but Roller claimed the tradition. Her flock was caged, tame and tempting. “Those turkeys were the bane of my mother’s life,” her daughter later recalled. “The Indians were constantly trying to steal them.” The Native Americans were still invited to the family’s first Wisconsin Thanksgiving.

Tribes here already had their own thanksgiving ceremonies. The Ojibwe celebrated in early spring, however, as a “first fruits of the season” event. Any food caught, collected or harvested had to be first offered to what white settlers called their “Great Spirit.”

As a federal holiday, Thanksgiving is fairly recent. Far from a banquet, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln set aside Aug. 30 as “a national day of humiliation, fasting and prayer.” The Civil War still raged and the occasion was decidedly spiritual, “so that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high.” It continued as a semi-religious observance for decades.

Wisconsin’s first official observance of Thanksgiving was in 1830, when it was still part of the Michigan Territory. Gov. Lewis Cass declared that a day of Thanksgiving be observed on Nov. 25.

“I recommend to the inhabitants of the Territory that, refraining from all labor, inconsistent with the duties and solemnity of the day, they repair to their respective houses of public worship,” he proclaimed, “and unite in suitable acknowledgements to the ‘Giver of every good gift.’ ”

The Wisconsin State Journal recalled in 1930 that in Madison’s early days, turkeys “ran wild over the present university campus.” European-American settlers arrived  in 1837. The first cabin was erected on the site of today’s General Executive Facility III (GEF III), on South Butler Street. It was the hostelry of Eben and Roseline Peck, created for workers building the new territorial capitol building. (An earlier, unfinished cabin belonging to John Caitlin was destroyed by fire.)

Roseline Peck in 1874 (image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society)
Roseline Peck in 1874 (image courtesy of Wisconsin Historical Society)

The Pecks wisely brought along two barrels of flour, a barrel of dried fruit and other provisions. Despite the wealth of wild foods, none of the settlers were hunter-gatherers. Anyway, downtown was a grim place to find nourishment. The Ho-Chunk knew it, though they visited for trade.

At the time of settlement, there was no known Native American population on the Madison isthmus. Instead, they lived far from the central marshes, where “miasma” and “ague” — cholera and malaria — were nearly universal, camping instead on Lake Mendota’s north shore, along the southeastern side of Lake Monona and seasonally near Lake Wingra. They did, however, come to the isthmus to fish. 

“The amateur fisherman makes catches of 150 pounds for a day’s sport,” reported The Sunday Milwaukee Telegraph in 1890. The lakes still had “vast fields of wild rice.”

George Stoner’s family arrived in Madison soon after the Pecks, just short of his seventh birthday. He later wrote a history column for the Madison Democrat newspaper.

“I have seen deer grazing where the Capitol park now stands; while in the east bay of Maple Bluff they were visible at almost any hour of the day,” he recalled in 1896.

Some 500 deer were taken in 1849 during a single Ho-Chunk drive on the northeast side. “Ducks, geese, quail, pheasants and prairie chicken could be numbered by the million,” Stoner said. “In an early day, the surface of Lake Mendota would be literally black with ducks, for acres and acres, and when they arose from the water the roaring sound produced might easily be mistaken for thunder.”

The earliest settlers, however, couldn’t get at the bounty all around them. “The menu was rather slim for some time,” Stoner noted. Pioneers used an abandoned Native American garden near the intersection of Pinckney Street and East Washington Avenue. Otherwise, they depended on goods shipped at high cost from St. Louis via Galena, Ill.

Fewer than 30 European-Americans lived in all of Dane County. The nearest flour mill was in Beloit – a two-week trip by wagon. Pioneers instead boiled wheat and used a carpenter’s plane to shave dried corn from the cob. Adjusted for inflation, a dozen eggs cost more than $20.

One of the pioneers recalled that for 10 days he subsisted entirely upon a bulbous marsh root that the Ho-Chunk also consumed. Near the northern shore of Lake Mendota, the “standing dish” at the cabin of French-Indian trader Michel St. Cyr was muskrat pie. One traveler wondered if Madison coffee were made from acorns.

“The only luxury in the way of fruit we were permitted to indulge in for years was crabapples, choke cherries and sour grapes, while pumpkin and watermelon rind were sometimes converted into preserves which were regarded as a great delicacy,” recalled Stoner in 1896. A rare treat was maple syrup from trees tapped in Maple Bluff by the Ho-Chunk.

Still, a year after arriving, in 1838 settlers gathered at the Peck cabin to enjoy the village’s first Thanksgiving, in part to celebrate nearing completion of the Capitol. The Ho-Chunk may have been invited; the Pecks and their son had included them in a Fourth of July feast the year before, when a cattle drive headed to Green Bay offered a windfall of beef.

We don’t know what date they celebrated Thanksgiving. One press report a century later names early December, but that seems unlikely. The meal was probably outside, pointing to an earlier date. The house was small, there were at least 40 to feed, and an early history notes that “the grand dining room was as well ventilated as the winds of heaven could make it, the hospitable board being laid in the open air.”

“Such a thing as a cook stove was then unknown, unseen and unheard of in this wilderness country – the cooking being done over an open fire,” recalled Stoner.

That first Madison Thanksgiving “was probably not very sumptuous,” reported the State Journal in 1930, based on Wisconsin Historical Society records. “The viands no doubt consisted of venison, fish, Indian potatoes, cranberries and other native products.” It’s unlikely that it included turkey, although they “ran wild over the present university campus.” Later, Roseline Peck wrote of turkey being an impossible early luxury.

The Pecks likely paid the Ho-Chunk for their Thanksgiving. “Other writers have left memoirs in which they have made statements that the fish caught for the big dinners was all caught on contract by Indians” as well as traders, recalled David Atwood in 1919. He had arrived in Madison in 1847 and for decades served as editor and publisher of the State Journal. “These men also furnished what wild game was eaten.”

pierre esprit Raddison portrait
Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636-1710) by Christian Robert de Massy, illustrateur, pour la Fondation Lionel-Groulx. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

But Wisconsin’s earliest-recorded Thanksgiving was in 1659. Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers, the first French explorers to enter the state since Jean Nicollet, ran out of provisions during a hard winter in what is today Bayfield County.

They ate their dogs. They backtracked to their previous camps and dug the refuse of past meals from snowbanks. They boiled guts, skin and sinew and consumed it. They crushed and ate powdered bones. Some of the hair from hides was burned for fire, “the rest goes downe our throats, eating heartily these things most abhorred,” Radisson wrote later. “We went so eagerly for it that our gums did bleede like one newly wounded.”

They started to eat wood.

“Finaly we became the very Image of death. We mistook ourselves very often, taking the living for the dead and ye dead for the living,” he wrote.

Radisson enters a Native American camp, one year after his dramatic rescue by the Ottawa. (Charles William Jeffereys. Public domain)
Radisson enters a Native American camp, one year after his dramatic rescue by the Ottawa. (Charles William Jeffereys. Public domain)

They were rescued by the Odawa (Ottowa), who fed them wild rice, turkey and other foods. Groseillers gave a speech of thanksgiving. The pair were later reclothed and underwent a series of Odawa ceremonies they did not understand.

“After this,” wrote Groseillers, “they weeped upon our heads until we weare wetted by their tears.” 

And then they “made us smoake in their pipes after they kindled them.
It was not in common pipes, but in pipes of peace,” he wrote, “that they pull out but very seldom, when there is occasion for heaven and earth.”

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Jay Rath
Jay Rath

Besides The Wisconsin Examiner, writer-cartoonist Jay Rath has contributed to Animato!, Cartoonist PROfiles and Nemo: The Classic Comics Library magazines. An early and longtime contributor to The Onion, for more than 20 years he taught cartooning and animation to young people through the University of Wisconsin School of Education-Extension.