Gold Rush California’s first Thanksgiving Day premiered in Sonora with “fun and jollity, but not of the most refined order,” Capt. Thomas R. Stoddart wrote in his 1861 history of Tuolumne County.
The historic hoorah on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1849, was held nine days before the state’s official day of grace proclaimed by Military Gov. Bennett Riley. Why the earlier celebration in Sonora happened remains a mystery, but the late County Historian Carlo M. De Ferrari speculated: “They may have been thirsty.”
The above information is all that historians know about that first local holiday, except that others followed throughout the county’s rowdy but glittering founding era.
American historians generally agree that today’s Thanksgiving holiday began with a harvest celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts, 400 years ago.
It was there that Puritans, fleeing religious persecution in England, arrived on the ship “Mayflower” in 1620.
The sick and starving Pilgrims were befriended by Native Americans who taught them how to survive in the unfamiliar and frightening wilderness of the New World. The Natives Americans had a deep understanding of their environment, and their customs embraced giving thanks.
A successful harvest the following fall brought together the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag for a celebration dinner of wild turkeys and geese, chickpeas, shellfish, maize and dried fruits, with venison contributed by the Indians.
The colorful turkeys were similar to those we see along Tuolumne County’s roadways. However, California’s native gobblers had been hunted to extinction by 1900. A subspecies from Rio Grande country was introduced by the state 50 years later as a substitute.
One Argonaut with deep familial roots in the Plymouth Colony was Alfred “Alf” Doten. He answered the call of gold by investing in the Pilgrim Mining Co. and headed west with his partners.
By mid-1849 he was mining at Wood’s Creek and living in a log cabin with a stone fireplace and chimney the men built themselves. He was at the placers of Calaveras County on Thanksgiving Day 1850, which he observed by “stewing and eating an unusual quantity of beans.”
Doten’s next few Thanksgivings were passed in the company of men from neighboring camps. In 1853, he attended a combination housewarming and Thanksgiving party with lots of music and songs, as well as “a grand oyster supper and milk punch.”
While Doten was dining on tinned oysters, another New Englander, Stephen Chapin Davis, was enjoying the fruits of his success as a produce merchant — watermelon.
Davis and store partner J. Hilliard, of Nashua, New Hampshire, where he lived as a child, added the usual summertime treat “just picked from the vines” to “wild ducks roasted, stewed quails, and mince pie.”
Davis, then only 21 with a background as textile mill worker at 13, cabin-boy and clerk, used his brief Gold Rush stay to reinvent himself as a first-class businessman who skillfully “mined the miners.”
After selling his store in 1854, he left Coulterville for home in Dunstable, Massachusetts, with $3,000 in gold dust ($106,433 now), another $769 from Hilliard, who bought him out, and the deeds to a pair of quartz mines.
His take-aways from the Cadets of Temperance and his personal motto —“perseverance, energy and economy”— were cornerstones of his brief life. He died of tuberculosis at 23 while involved in another profitable produce venture: importing apples from the eastern states for wholesale to vendors in Liverpool, England.
In 1854, Doten made “a bucket full of egg-nog… that did honor to the occasion” along with a dozen mince pies with buddy George.
Doten apparently missed Thanksgiving 1855 in Columbia, where a well-lubricated, mostly male crowd took over a Columbia fandango house and spiced up the affair with knives and pistols.
A local newspaper editor was pleased no one was killed at the “free-for-all“ and urged townsmen “to quit carrying batteries” — he meant deadly weapons, not today’s titanium variety.
Just a year earlier, it seemed that a Thanksgiving event could be a peaceful affair in Columbia given the presence of six or seven dozen womenfolk. And, it was “a brilliant affair with live music and dancing ‘til morning,” the Columbia Gazette’s editor wrote.
The sporadic civilizing influence of women was never more apparent than in the Sonora home of Dr. Lewis Gunn and his wife, Elizabeth.
Reunited with her husband in August 1851 following a six-month ocean voyage around Cape Horn with the couple’s four children, she simply took up where she left off in Philadelphia.
This early day domestic goddess, all 100 pounds of her, spent many hours on board the sailing ship Bengal bent over her Wheeler and Wright sewing machine, making new clothes for the children and mending worn ones.
Dr. Lewis Gunn was more than appreciative of her devotion to the home arts. The one Thanksgiving he described in a Gold Rush diary entry was a remembrance of a lonely day in 1849 fueled with a meal of “a slice of salt pork, some hard bread and some tea,” more work building a sturdier cabin and “reflecting on the many mercies of God.”
Like other ’49ers, Dr. Lewis Gunn failed to prosper in the diggings near Jamestown. A return to practicing medicine brought good fortune, followed by election in April 1852 as the county’s first recorder and part-ownership of the Sonora Herald, the Gold Country’s first newspaper.
With his financial future seemingly secure, Dr. Lewis Gunn was able to send for the family he dearly missed for two-and-a-half years.
Elizabeth Gunn and their children adapted quickly to life in frontier Sonora and their new home, now part of the Gunn House Hotel on South Washington Street.
With her trusty sewing machine, a few cakes, preserves, and pickled onions that survived the trip, pots and pans from Philadelphia and a wood cooking stove, Elizabeth Gunn was in business. She also found time to write home to her mother and two sisters in Philadelphia. Her letters that survive are considered classic accounts of Gold Rush family life.
The Gunn family’s first Thanksgiving in Sonora fell on Thursday, Nov. 27, 1851, by official gubernatorial decree. As the big day drew near Douglas, Chester, Sarah and Lizzie, 3, became more excited as their thoughts turned to the day’s meal.
Preparation of a pudding using some eggs from Douglas’s chickens was, uncharacteristically, as far as their mother got. She was taken ill with erysipelas, a painful but not uncommon skin condition of the time. Even sewing a new winter overcoat for Douglas was put on hold until she was well again several days later.
Dr. Lewis Gunn tended to his wife and took care of the children and household chores. Of the holiday season, Elizabeth Gunn wrote: “Of course we could not have Thanksgiving in the eating way, but I can truly say that we did have one in our hearts.”
Douglas brightened his mother’s stressful ordeal when he gave her a silver dollar, part of the proceeds from egg sales at $4.50 a dozen.
The following year, there were several new blessings to count. Although the family’s drug store burned to the ground in the great fire of June 18, 1852, their home was spared even as flames menaced from 200 feet away. Swift action in the form of covering the adobe’s wooden shingle roof with wet blankets prevented flaming debris swirling in the air from igniting it.
Elizabeth Gunn worked through the night soaking her treasured bedding with the help of John Smith, an African-American from Murphys who just happened to be in Sonora on that terrible night.
The year 1852 also brought a better bottom line to the Herald, and Dr. Lewis Gunn was able to hire two new printers. The newspaper’s role in community life was growing, and the country editor’s political influence helped elect a Democratic slate in the county’s first general election over Whig and “Slavite” candidates.
There was a new Methodist church on Piety Hill where its successor stands today, and shops offered a wider variety of food-stuffs including pumpkins, melons, tinned Massachusetts clams, oysters from Baltimore, dried cranberries from Oregon and 100-pound barrels of flour milled in the Sacramento Valley. The latter came in handy for the shells of six pumpkin pies with currants, two of dried cranberries and a “rooster” pie that Elizabeth Gunn baked that year.
A special treat for the Gunn children was “boiled bread pudding” dotted with raisins they bought with their bottle money. After collecting some of the many empty bottles “thrown out of the shops and houses,” Elizabeth Gunn wrote, they sold them for 25 cents a dozen to a Frenchman who filled them with sweet syrups which apparently sold well enough for him to move to San Francisco and expand his business. He was likely Hugues Lyons, whose descendants parlayed the business into the Lyons restaurant chain.
Thanksgiving 1852 fell on Nov. 25 in mild fall weather, but the county was inundated by “powerful rains” the following week, according to a pregnant Elizabeth Gunn, who gave birth to daughter Anna Lee on the following May 20.
With family 3,000 miles away and giving up hope she would see her mother and siblings in the near future, Elizabeth Gunn wrote plaintively, “I want to come home for Thanksgiving.”
Anna Lee’s birth was a gift inspiring much joy in the Gunn household in 1853, but so was Elizabeth Gunn’s new kitchen, a shed-like addition to the adobe’s south wall. Clearly part of the building’s outline in a mid-1850s town lithograph, it came with a more reliable cook stove, long table along one wall and more room to store bulky items such as barrels of flour and sugar, sacks of potatoes and cord wood for cooking and heating.
The year also brought some positive firsts for Sonora: a permanent courthouse and a grammar school, though a public school was a few years off. Chester, 10, was enrolled at the school, Elizabeth Gunn found time to home school Sarah and Lizzie, Douglas was learning newspapering from his dad, and Anna Lee just cooed.
The physician-pharmacist’s drug store had reopened, but losses from the June 1852 fire were still being paid off. The couple gave up a room to boarders, the Myricks, who had sold their home. Myrick worked at the Herald.
Mrs. Myrick was as much of a housekeeping maven as her landlady and, with the birth of Anna Lee, Elizabeth no doubt appreciated help with that year’s Thanksgiving dinner for seven. Working through the night, the pair baked bread that had been rising for several hours that day. About 1 a.m., the women paused to enjoy warm, buttered slices and some applesauce. After cleaning a fish her husband had caught, Mrs. Myrick headed for bed at 4 a.m.
Elizabeth Gunn, energized by her new stove and oven, whipped up a “raised” cake, cleaned up the kitchen and got an hour’s sleep before rising to fix breakfast featuring a generous slice of Myrick’s fish.
On Thanksgiving morning, Dr. Lewis Gunn took the four eldest children to services at the new Methodist church. Elizabeth Gunn wrote another letter home before starting the day’s mid-afternoon dinner.
Mrs. Myrick helped out again by plucking and dressing the day’s main course: roast wild geese. A grateful Elizabeth Gunn gave her some plum pudding and let her keep the feathers.
Two days earlier, the two women collaborated on squash pies. Mrs. Myrick made the crusts, while Elizabeth Gunn filled them and kept the temperature steady in the oven.
Until 1941, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed legislation setting aside the fourth Thursday of November as a national day of thanks, the holiday was proclaimed annually by American presidents and in gubernatorial declarations.
The latter was the case during the Civil War era when California Gov. Leland Stanford designated Nov. 26, 1863, as “a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the great benefits we have received at His hands during the year through which we have just passed.”
Stanford signed his “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” on Nov. 5, 1863, but it is a second signature, A.A.H. Tuttle, that should be of local interest.
Anson Arkenside Hull Tuttle was Stanford’s appointed secretary of state. The namesake of Tuttletown began his political career as county judge in 1850 and served in that elected capacity during Tuolumne County’s tumultuous first years. Stanford appointed him to fill an incumbent’s nearly expired term from Aug. 17, 1863, until Dec. 7 that year.
It was before Tuttle went to Sacramento that he provoked the refined ire of Elizabeth Gunn after she learned he had sold his home to “some women who came here from San Francisco.” She wrote to her mother and sisters of her disgust that more leisure time females had arrived in Sonora and that for the “first few nights they sent their servant out to excite notice.”
Elizabeth Gunn actively campaigned to outlaw brothels, but Sonora’s all-male city trustees (today’s city council) with an equally all-male constituency only ordered the flesh pots to keep their front doors closed and their window shades drawn.
The Gunn family moved to San Francisco in 1861 at a time when gold mining and the general economy were in eclipse.
However, Thanksgiving always called for a celebration. and, in Sonora in 1871, it took the form of evening dining and dancing at Turn Verein Hall, the popular events venue on North Washington Street at Yaney Avenue. It was $1 to get in and 75 cents more for supper.
In contrast to Sonora’s wild and woolly first Thanksgiving, the revelry had tamed down by 1877 to playing cards for prizes of embroidered sheets and pillowcases for the winners.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Andrew Mattos, records and archive manager of the Carlo M. De Ferrari Archive; Brad Fisher of the Tuolumne County Historical Society and William Coffill.