Reflecting on Wisconsin’s earliest Thanksgivings

Jay Rath, Contributing writer

The story sounds familiar: 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 particular Thanksgiving story didn’t happen near Plymouth Rock. It happened in Wisconsin in 1659, just 38 years after the Pilgrims’ feast.

That’s one example of the rich Thanksgiving history held by the Badger State. Mary Spielman Roller, a resident of what became Milwaukee’s south side, even claimed to have introduced turkeys as the Thanksgiving bird in the state of Wisconsin, in 1835. She brought four birds from Buffalo, New York, when she settled in Milwaukee at the age of 18.

“Mrs. Roller assisted her husband in cutting down huge trees to use in building a log hut, and to make a clearing in the forest wherein to plant some grain and build a coop for the turkeys,” according to an early newspaper account. As the animals multiplied, “The Indians were constantly trying to steal them. Although not openly hostile, the Indians were apt to show anger when opposed by a woman.”

Of course, Roller could only claim she was the first to distribute turkeys to others for Thanksgiving — the bird is native to Wisconsin, and common. The Wisconsin State Journal recalled in 1930 that in Madison’s early days, turkeys “ran wild over the present university campus.” White settlers had great difficulty hunting them, however. Mark Twain later wrote of his own frustrating experience, “Hunting the Deceitful Turkey.” 

Roller’s daughter recalled that Native Americans were invited to her mother’s first Wisconsin Thanksgiving. They “came in their native costumes, adding a touch of bright color to the monotony that pioneer decoration has always assumed.”

Native Americans 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.’”

As late as 1876, the State Journal reported that much of the day was spent in church, although dining also was celebrated. In Madison, former Gov. Cadwallader Washburn and other nabobs ate in hotels. “There was good skating on Monona Bay, which was well enjoyed by a large number of youth.” Evening brought a fireman’s ball and several plays — one of them starring a young man soon to be known as “Fighting Bob” LaFollette.

Wisconsin achieved statehood in 1848 and the holiday afterward roamed the calendar; the present national date wasn’t fixed until 1939. In 1844, Gov. James Duane Doty even named Dec. 12 as Thanksgiving.

But Wisconsin’s earliest-recorded meal of thanksgiving was that celebration in 1659. Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers, the first French explorers to enter the state after 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.

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 so it was, just a few decades after Plymouth Rock, that Thanksgiving came to Wisconsin.