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In History: Turkey Talk; Giving Thanks, California Style

Cooler weather, colorful leaves, and Apple Hill traffic announce the arrival of fall and Thanksgiving. This American holiday dates back to 1621 when Governor Bradford of Plymouth Colony organized a feast to celebrate the survival of the colony during its first year. In subsequent years, days of fasting and giving thanks occasionally became a common practice in New England.

This tradition continued into the coming centuries. The Continental Congress proclaimed one or more days of “Thanksgiving” a year during the American Revolution, and the first official Thanksgiving proclamation by the national government of the U.S. was issued in 1789 by George Washington when he encouraged Americans to give thanks for the successful end of the war and the ratification of the Constitution. Succeeding presidents also proclaimed days of thanks. 

In the early 19th century, New York became the first of several states to designate an annual Thanksgiving holiday. These holidays were not always on the same day, and many of the southern states had no such observance at all. It wasn’t until 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the final Thursday in November as a national day of thanks.

In California, Thanksgiving was first celebrated in 1847 by a group of New Englanders in San Francisco. Captain John Paty of Plymouth presided over the event, which included other prominent New Englanders. In 1849, a proclamation by Governor Riley set November 24 as a day of Thanksgiving. In addition to “health, order without law, and wealth accumulating faster than ever known,” citizens of California also had a newly ratified Constitution to be thankful for. The following year, Governor Burnett of the new state of California designated November 30 as a day to give thanks. 

In the years following, proclamations of Thanksgiving were hit or miss by the governors of the state, but the citizens rarely missed the opportunity to celebrate the bounty of California. In addition to family dinners, Thanksgiving balls—with good music and dinner—were routinely held at Masonic halls and hotels.

While the rest of the nation was in the midst of the Civil War, the Sacramento Daily Union of November 27, 1862, recounted the blessings of California:

“Peace has prevailed within the limit of our State. Our pursuits and our enterprises have been undisturbed. We have recovered with wonderful rapidity from the devastating effects of the great flood. New sources of wealth have been revealed, and the old have continued to yield in golden profusion. The boon of a trans-continental railroad has been granted at last by national authority…” 

And if that were not enough to be thankful for, the article also noted that “A ten-pound turkey can be bought for a dollar and six bits [$1.75], a goose for four bits [$0.50], and ducks for three bits a pair [$0.37]!” 

Apparently, fowl wasn’t always so affordable, at least not to the editors of the Mountain Democrat. In the November 23, 1855, issue, the writer notes: “as we are too poor to buy a turkey and too proud to beg one, won’t someone invite us to dinner?” In a postscript to the article, the writer states: “We can’t accept more than three invitations to dinner but shall not refuse any number of turkies [sic].” In 1941, Congress passed a law that made Thanksgiving the holiday we all recognize—the fourth Thursday of November.


Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 24, Number 3646, 27 November 1862; Volume 96, Number 93, 22 November 1898

Mountain Democrat, November 23, 1855

by Jerrie Beard