Annotations from the Archive: Thanksgiving Traditions

"There we have short, bitter winters; windy, flower-laden springs; long, hot summers; triumphant autumns that last until Christmas—a season of perpetual sunlight, blazing blue skies, and frosty nights. In this newest part of the New World autumn is the season of beauty and sentiment, as spring is in the Old World."

—from the essay, "Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle," by Willa Cather [The Nation, September 5, 1923]

Thanksgiving, as our shared national holiday, is a time when it is natural to reflect upon our many blessings but also the nostalgia, and history, of Thanksgivings past. Thanksgiving seems to have been especially meaningful to Willa Cather. She often visited family in Red Cloud at that time of year and included nods to the holidays in her correspondence. Our Willa Cather Pioneer Memorial Collection, part of our Archives and Collections at the National Willa Cather Center, is fortunate to include much of it.

In November 1896, after leaving home in June for her first job as editor of The Home Monthly in Pittsburgh, Willa Cather wrote “The Origin of Thanksgiving” under the pseudonym of “Helen Delay.” In it she paid tribute to Sara Josepha Hale who, like her, was a writer and editor of a popular ladies’ magazine, retiring in 1877 when she was almost ninety. In addition to writing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Hale is perhaps best known for her two decades of lobbying for the creation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday—both in her editorials and through a presidential letter-writing campaign. 

As “Helen Delay,” Cather wrote in her tribute to Hale:

“It is often the things with which we are most familiar that we know least about. Familiarity seems to dull the edge of our curiosity. While Thanksgiving day is, after the Fourth of July, the most characteristic and most patriotic of all American gala days, its origin is seldom referred to and its originator is left in almost total obscurity. We have come to regard this great feast day of ours as a thing that came about because of a general sentiment and through a general consent...But our great National feast day was originated by a private individual, and a woman at that. Above all her other interests and duties, the establishment of Thanksgiving was Sarah J. Hale's life work. Since this is so it is strange that her name is so unfamiliar to American ears. But such injustice is not rare in history…

At last, after twenty years of fruitless endeavor, Mrs. Hale obtained recognition for her project from that man who seemed empowered by Heaven to recognize all merit, in small things as well as great. She succeeded in getting a personal interview with Abraham Lincoln. The story once in Lincoln's ear, and the thing was done. He saw how precious such a day would become to the American people, how invaluable would be its associations. That man of mighty proclamations first proclaimed "Thanksgiving Day" in 1864. Gradually the governors of all the states fell in line, and the day has become one of the facts of our National existence.”

Cather often returned to Red Cloud in the fall to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family. She shared this fond notion in a letter to Elizabeth Wolfe Huffmann, on June 13, 1945, and recalling some of her last holidays at home in Red Cloud [NOTE: now the Cather Second Home Guest House]:

“...I often think of you, Lizzie. Perhaps I have never told you, just in so many words, how grateful I have always been to you for your kindness to my mother and father - especially to my mother when her health began to break up. I often remember the last Thanksgiving and Christmas that you and I had in the old house in Red Cloud. What a happy time that was for me! I shall always think of the old house just as it was then - exactly as Father and Mother left it. As you know, I have a little house in Canada, and I have lived in a good many places in the world, but no one place is as dear to me as that old house in Red Cloud was. You probably know that my sister Elsie has sold the house and most of the contents.”

In a letter to Carrie Miner Sherwood, written on December 18, 1946, Cather refers to a clipping of an article that Sherwood wrote about Red Cloud’s earliest Thanksgiving and had sent to her:

“I just love the first Thanksgiving Day. And the pastry made from the marrow got from of fresh cracked buffalo bones! That was unique. I have put your article in my scrap book.”

Our archives are home to that article, printed in The Commercial Advertiser, on Friday, November 29, 1946. It contains fascinating details of the 1870 Thanksgiving celebration, Red Cloud’s first and only seven years after it was designated a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln. Here it is printed in full:

Red Cloud’s First Thanksgiving Day

“The following account of Red Cloud’s first Thanksgiving was written by Mrs. W.A. Sherwood, of this city, who obtained her information from an aunt. This article will be of great interest to all living in the community now and to many others who now live in widely scattered places, but still call Red Cloud ‘home.’

The settlers living in the Red Cloud stockade observed Thanksgiving in the month of November, 1870 by inviting the settlers at Guide Rock to be their guests for dinner.

The meal for the occasion was prepared by Mrs. W.E. Jackson, her daughters, Carrie and Margaret, Mrs. James LeDuc (nee Mary Miner), Mrs. Bud Penney, Mrs. Jas. Calvert and Mrs. John Barber.

In the stockade were several young men, good hunters, whose responsibility was to furnish the meat. This was not difficult, as the country was teeming with buffalo, deer, antelope, wild geese, ducks, prairie chickens and quail. During the late summer a flock of wild turkey was discovered on Ash Creek. These were now brought in for Thanksgiving dinner.

The great surprise at the dinner was mince pie, the crust of which was shortened with marrow, obtained by cracking the fresh buffalo bones. The filling was made of chopped buffalo meat, dried apples brought from Iowa by Mrs. Jackson. Wild plums gathered by Mrs. Heffelbower during the summer and dried by Mrs. Calvert, gave an additional zest to the mixture in place of the customary cider.

No cranberries, but plenty of jam and jelly, made from the wild grapes, chokecherries, gooseberries and plums which grew in profusion along all the streams. Shortage of dairy products was nothing new to these settlers, as only one cow was owned in the whole settlement, but on this occasion there was plenty.

Ten days of warm rainy weather during August, 1870, had made living and the building of the houses inside the stockade extremely difficult, but in the end added much to this first Thanksgiving dinner, for the fall of 1870 was unusually warm, with no killing frost, so the late garden planted by William McBride (father of Mrs. Frank Frisbie), Silas Garber and Mrs. Jackson provided fresh turnips, lettuce and green onions in abundance for the dinner and to supply the stockade until near Christmas time.

In all some thirty persons shared in this first Thanksgiving feast 77 years ago.

Some time in the fall of 1929, at the request of the late Attorney J. S. Gilham, Mrs. Carrie Jackson Taylor made a trip from her home in Hoxie, Kansas, to attend the Old Settlers meeting in Webster county [sic] and the information for this article was supplied by her at that time.”


This whimsical postcard was sent by Willa Cather to her niece Mary Virginia Auld in Red Cloud — Auld Family Collection, TX-46-001, Willa Cather Foundation Collections & Archives at the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud.

While the letters and images are in our Collections & Archives, you can link to the letter transcriptions, and "The Origin of Thanksgiving" article, directly at the links above at the Willa Cather Archive at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.