History of Thanksgiving in California and Marin

By Robert L. Harrison

Denman Family — of Olema and Petaluma — on the porch of their home in Petaluma on Thanksgiving, 1905. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

A special celebration of offering thanks for a successful harvest has endured in societies around the world for centuries. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans were known to feast and praise their gods following an abundant fall crop. In Europe the Dutch have kept October 3rd as a religious festival celebrating the 1575 deliverance of the city of Leyden from a siege. Since 1605 England has paused to give thanks on November 5th for the failure of an attempt to blow up Parliament.

The tradition of thanksgiving in America goes back to the Pilgrim colonies of New England — or does it? Some historians now cite other celebratory events in North America that predated the Pilgrims 1621 gathering at Plymouth Rock. In 1565, for example, Spaniard Pedro Augustine held a thank-you dinner for members of the Timucua tribe at St. Augustine, Florida. British settlers on December 4, 1619 gave thanks to “Almighty God” upon reaching a safe harbor in Virginia.

George Washington declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in November 1789. But for eight decades following independence only some of the American states celebrated the holiday. Sarah Josepha Hale earned the nickname the “Mother of Thanksgiving” for her 36-year campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Finally in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln heeded her call and proclaimed the final Thursday in November as an annual Thanksgiving holiday.

Long before Lincoln established the national holiday the State of California celebrated an official Thanksgiving Day. On November 4, 1850 Governor Peter H. Burnett proclaimed November 30th as California’s first Thanksgiving Day. His announcement came less than two months following the September 9th Congressional approval of California’s statehood and only two weeks after the news of statehood reached the Bay Area.

San Francisco Call, November 22, 1896

So Thanksgiving was indeed celebrated on Saturday November 30 in 1850 with church services, business closures, fancy dinners in town and humble outdoor meals, often featuring jackrabbit rather than turkey, as miners took time off in the Gold Country. The editor in the November 29, 1850 edition of the Daily Alta California wondered about the day chosen by the Governor:

Governor Burnett has appointed an unusual day for its observance this year. Thursday by long custom …. has attained a prescriptive right to the honor. But perhaps his Excellency was not well posted up on this matter, or chose not to be so.

On San Francisco’s first Thanksgiving most religious groups united in worship at the Baptist chapel. A November 28, 2019 Los Angeles Times story reported that Rev. Charles A. Farley preached of the “baptismal jubilee” with the news of statehood while in Sacramento the Sons of New England gathered in an elaborately decorated banquet hall, feasting on 40 dishes, from mock turtle soup to fruitcake and toasting “the last child of the Union, but not the weakest.” The Daily Alta noted: “Altogether the day bore a striking resemblance to the well-remembered Thanksgivings in the Atlantic States.”

Sporting events were often scheduled on Thanksgiving Day. On November 26, 1862 the Daily Alta listed baseball at Mission Dolores Park. The “Big Game” between the two Bay Area universities, Stanford and California at Berkeley football teams, was played on Thanksgiving for several years. From the November 26, 1937 Sausalito News:

Another old-timer recalls when the Big Game had to be played on Thanksgiving Day as it just didn’t seem proper to hold it on any common ordinary day.

Thanksgiving menu cover for the 1916 meal at Fort McDowell on Angel Island. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Over the years most Marin Thanksgiving celebrations were either ecumenical religious services and/or feasts at home or in a restaurant. The November 30, 1867 Marin Journal noted the Thanksgiving champagne dinner celebrated in the State Hotel where “mirth and jollity ruled the hour.” By 1915 a more serious take on the holiday appeared in the November 27th Marin County Tocsin: “In view of the turmoil in Europe and the storms in the eastern parts of our own country, the people of California had unusual cause for thanksgiving this year.”

Full menu from the 1916 Thanksgiving dinner given at Fort McDowell, located on Angel Island. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Here is a brief selection of twentieth century advertisements for Marin County restaurant Thanksgiving meals:

On November 23, 1933 The Marin Herald advertised San Anselmo’s Tivoli Café, which served a seven-course turkey dinner for 60c, or about $11 in 2021 dollars.
The Mill Valley Record on November 11, 1938: advertisement for The Buckeye restaurant. “For the Big Game Night & Thanksgiving Day we announce a special dinner, $1.25. In 2021 this would equal a modest $23.
La Ginestra restaurant featured a “Very Special Thanksgiving Dinner — Roast Turkey A La Ginestra with Chestnut Dressing — $2.50 Complete,” or $20 today. Sausalito News, November 25, 1964.
Menu cover for a Thanksgiving meal for prison employees at San Quentin in 1939.

A San Anselmo Herald November 13, 1941 editorial had this to say: “Today 132 million Americans can, with far more reason, give humble thanks for a truly bounteous horn of plenty, and for the freedom which is still theirs. Not with gloating, but with earnest gratitude, can the people of this country reflect that neither hunger nor tyranny stalks their land, striking terror into hearts and homes. Our blessings are many. To the kindly Providence that has bestowed them on this most favored of countries we owe, indeed, one day of Thanksgiving.”

Just 23 days later the Japanese Empire killed over 2,400 Americans in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In addition to the newspapers cited, this article referred to “Thanksgiving Day 1914: Lichtenberg Garden Yields 85 lb Squash” by Laurie Thompson, September 2, 2020, and to “Thanksgiving Feasts in Marin” by Carol Acquaviva, September 14, 2020, both published by the Anne T. Kent California Room Community Newsletter.

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Anne T. Kent California Room

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