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Opinion: Roasted rabbits and 40-dish banquets: How California marked its first Thanksgiving as a state

Historic California Bear Flag as photographed in 1890.
Historic California Bear Flag as photographed in 1890.
(Museum of the City of San Francisco)

In the Gold Country camps on the last Saturday of November in 1850, New Englanders who had journeyed west to find their fortunes put aside picks and shovels, roasted jack rabbits over open fires, and celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the new state of California.

Fifty miles away in the freshly laid-out city of Sacramento, the Sons of New England gathered for the holiday in an elaborately decorated banquet hall, feasting on 40 dishes, from mock turtle soup to fruitcake, and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” as they toasted “the last child of the Union, but not the weakest.”

And in San Francisco, the Rev. Charles A. Farley used his pulpit to drive home the theme of the day: the “baptismal jubilee” that greeted the news that California had become the nation’s 31st state. California’s admission to the union, Farley said in his Thanksgiving sermon at the First Unitarian Church, would leave “its mark upon the world for better or worse.”

In the first half of the 19th century, Thanksgiving was a haphazard affair, linked to regional events and so closely tied to worship that President Thomas Jefferson broke with the practice of his predecessors and refused to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation because he viewed it as state-sponsored religion.

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The last Thursday of November became a national holiday in 1863 when President Lincoln established a day of thanks to help heal the wounds of the Civil War; it would be years before the Pilgrims’ story became an inextricable part of Thanksgiving lore, and many decades more before historians debunked that fable.

In California, in 1850, the New England custom took on special meaning. In a proclamation setting the date of the state’s first Thanksgiving, Gov. Peter Burnett dedicated the day to giving thanks for “the unnumbered blessings bestowed by Him upon our new state and people, and especially for our admission into the happy family of states.”

Although Congress had admitted California on Sept. 9, news did not reach the state until the mail steamer Oregon entered San Francisco Bay more than a month later on Oct. 18, firing guns in a prearranged signal.

“Business of almost every description was instantly suspended, the courts adjourned in the midst of their work, and men rushed from every house into the streets and towards the wharves, to hail the harbinger of the welcome news,” according to “The Annals of San Francisco,” a contemporaneous history. The official celebration 11 days later included a parade, concert, bonfires, fireworks and “the grandest public ball that had yet been witnessed in the city.”

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The euphoria carried over to the Thanksgiving holiday a month later. Then, as now, Californians were eager to correct mistaken impressions held by Easterners. The Rev. Farley, a Harvard man, entitled his Thanksgiving sermon “The Moral Aspect of California” and stressed the principles and work ethic of the recent arrivals: “A tide of emigration such as mortal eyes never saw before, has poured through the Golden Gate from the four quarters of the globe. The people who come are strong, courageous, and hard-working; the weak and lazy stay home.”

At the request of a dozen of San Francisco’s leading citizens, the sermon was reprinted for distribution in New York to help dispel “the erroneous opinions so prevalent, especially in the eastern States, as to the moral character of our community.”

In Sacramento, the Rev. Joseph Benton, a Yale seminarian who had journeyed west the previous year and founded the city’s first church, delivered a Thanksgiving sermon that extolled his new home as “the wonder and the perplexity of mankind.”

At a time when the census recorded 92,597 residents in California and the journey to reach the Golden State required an arduous trip by land or sea, Benton prophesied that California would become “the richest, mightiest, noblest and most renowned of all the States. … The world’s centre will have changed. This will be the land of pilgrimage, and no man will be thought to have seen the world till he has visited California.”

Following the sermon, Benton and Gov. Burnett joined the Sons of New England banquet, which included boiled salmon, ham, corned beef, mutton, tongue, roast veal, beef, lamb, pork, venison, turkey, geese, duck and curlew, followed by lobster salad, chicken salad, boiled ham with champagne sauce, potatoes (baked, boiled and mashed), beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, onions, and baked beans, pies (apple, peach, raspberry, pumpkin and prune), plum pudding and plum cake, sago pudding and fruitcake, and — a California touch — raisins, prunes, oranges, walnuts and almonds. The guests raised glasses of Champagne, Madeira, claret, brandy, port, sherry and hock in dozens of toasts that ended near midnight with nine cheers for the Union and three for California.

A new tradition for the new state. “Thanksgiving, the first in the state of California, was celebrated yesterday in the usual manner, by religious ceremonies, social parties and feasting,” concluded the Daily Alta California. “And if not quite as generally honored as at the other extremity of the Union, still it is so good a custom that, like wine, it will grow better with each succeeding year’s age.”

Miriam Pawel’s latest book is “The Browns of California: The Family That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation.”


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