Come take a walk with me back in time, down a trail less traveled.
Pioneers who followed trails less traveled discovered their destiny alongside rivers and in the mouths of canyons of the West where they could build cabins and find land to prepare and plant. During the crossing of the continent they looked ahead to better lives and times than the turmoil and loss they suffered in the East.
The loss was not only of property, but also in the lives of their loved ones. Many vowed they would not allow bitterness to rule their new lives and they would find that which they could be thankful for in Utah territory.
Although they had few possessions, they had tremendous faith in God and felt that the Lord would provide sustenance in their hour of need. During those first Thanksgiving times, pioneers depended on each other for help and the land to provide food. They thoughtfully considered every blessing they received and gave thanks for them. Some found great blessings in having a warm shelter in which to live, others found that they had survived the crossing of the plains and mountains to arrive safely in their new land. Most gave thanks for health and strength to work the fields, build the cabins, give birth, feed their children and harvest their crops. More than one family was thankful they still had their little children while others had lost theirs to illness. Those who did have loss of life were thankful they could bury their dead on their own land instead of in an unmarked grave along the trail.
One family had only one little girl who longed for a sibling. On the evening of Thanksgiving, a thump was heard at the door. When her father opened it, a Native American was laying on the porch, holding a bundle. He was half frozen and they got him inside. They discovered the bundle held a little baby girl. When he recovered enough to talk, he told them another tribe had attacked his family and killed them all except for him and his little daughter. He asked that they raise her, and then passed away. The little pioneer daughter now had a sister that she always gave thanks for on Thanksgiving. She and her new sister lived into their 80s.
A common practice held among early day pioneers was to gather their family together on Thanksgiving and give them counsel. After their meal, be it little or abundant, parents encouraged their family to count their blessings and discuss them with each other. In this way, no small improvement in their life would go without notice or appreciation.
Often, the settlers built homes close enough together that they could easily walk between the cabins for visits. During Thanksgiving, unless the snow was too deep, the pioneers would visit together and share their food if possible. Sometimes parched corn, roasted potatoes or an extra helping of soup would be meager provisions for dinner, but their prayers of thanks superseded that which was lacking in the meal.
Remote settlements or ranches kept families and friends from visiting for months. Wagon roads in winter were snow covered barriers preventing passage so the hardy settlers provided for themselves by smoking their meat, preserving vegetables and drying fruits. They also made sure to have plenty of wood for stoves and fireplaces.
On Thanksgiving, dried apple pies were considered delicacies as were a smoked ham or venison quarter or even a wild turkey. When Thanksgiving arrived, they did their chores as usual, and when the day was done, they celebrated by reading the Bible and giving prayers of thanksgiving to their Lord. To many, having a feast was usually not in the day’s plan. Those fortunate to have a big meal were among the minority. Usually more than one family attended the feast to share the good fortune of plenty to eat.
Not all times were desperate. Eventually, pioneer effort succeeded. Homes were improved, crops harvested and food was available to everyone. Rewarding hard work and sacrifice, more time was allowed for beautification efforts. One lady hand sewed lovely autumn wreaths. She gathered green willows shaping them into hearts, stars, horseshoes and circles. In the fall she gathered leaves in buckets that she prepared with her own formula. She applied a thin coating of wax on them and lightly ironed them. After sewing them together, she applied them to her dried willow designs. The resultant wreath became a work of art.
After the vegetables had been gathered in, fruits and nuts from the orchard harvested and stored, she would work on tatting and crocheting projects. Quilt designs were copied by her neighbors and considered very original.
Thanksgiving in pioneer times was indeed a time to be thankful for the blessings of whatever they had. Material things were not as important to them as health, freedom and their love of God.
Patricia Holden is the publicist for the Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She is also a member of the DUP SheepRock Camp. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.