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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Overcast
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Madison and Wisconsin's first Thanksgivings
Pass the muskrat pie
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About the art: Jay Rath based this illustration on the Wisconsin territorial seal, from the year Madison had its first Thanksgiving.
Credit:Jay Rath

Everyone knows the story. In the 1600s, starving European immigrants were rescued with gifts of food from Native Americans, with whom they joined to give thanks. Except this Thanksgiving story didn't happen near Plymouth Rock. It happened in Wisconsin in 1659, just 38 years after the Pilgrims' feast.

Madison and the Badger State share a rich Thanksgiving history. In the capital, whites first celebrated it in 1838, just around the corner from where the Isthmus office, the Majestic Theatre and the Great Dane stand today.

"Amid gay strains of music from Roseline Peck's fiddle, Commander Augustus A. Bird and 36 workmen united with Madison's first settlers in giving thanks," recalled the Wisconsin State Journal in 1930, based on Wisconsin Historical Society records unearthed at the time.

Some Native Americans view Thanksgiving as a reminder of European hegemony. However, Madison's early residents, the Ho-Chunk, have always celebrated harvest festivals in several ways.

"One is a fall social gathering with things like songs and dances. We have a little pow-wow," says Robert Mann, executive director of Wisconsin's Ho-Chunk Nation, headquartered in Black River Falls. "Then, on the other side of it, we do have a more traditional ceremony. That's like a fall feast. That's where we would give thanks to the Spirit for the harvest."

As a federal holiday, Thanksgiving is fairly recent. Far from a banquet, in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln set aside Aug. 30 as "a national day of humiliation, fasting and prayer." The Civil War raged, and the occasion was decidedly spiritual, "so that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high."

It continued as a semi-religious observance for decades. As late as 1876, the State Journal reported that much of the day was spent in church, although dining was also celebrated. Former Gov. Cadwallader Washburn and other nabobs ate in hotels. "There was good skating on Monona Bay, which was well enjoyed by a large number of youth." Evening brought a fireman's ball and several plays - one of them starring young Bob La Follette.

Wisconsin's first official observance of Thanksgiving was in 1830, when it was part of the Michigan Territory. The Wisconsin Territory split off in 1836. Henry Dodge, the new governor, declared a day of Thanksgiving the same year. Wisconsin achieved statehood in 1848, and the holiday afterward roamed the calendar; the present date wasn't fixed until 1939. In 1844, Gov. James Duane Doty even named Dec. 12 as Thanksgiving.

European-American settlers arrived in Madison in 1837. The first cabin was erected on the site of today's General Executive Facility III (GEF III), on South Butler Street. It was the hostelry of Eben and Roseline Peck, created for workers building the Capitol. (An earlier, unfinished cabin belonging to John Caitlin was destroyed by fire.)

The Pecks wisely brought along two barrels of flour, a barrel of dried fruit and other provisions. Despite the wealth of wild foods, none of the settlers were hunter-gatherers. Anyway, downtown was a grim place to find nourishment. The Ho-Chunk knew it, though they visited for trade.

"At the time of settlement, there was no known Native American population on the isthmus," says Jack Holzhueter, former editor of the Historical Society's Wisconsin Magazine of History. Instead, they lived far from the central marshes, where "miasma" and "ague" - cholera and malaria - were nearly universal, camping instead on Mendota's north shore, along the southeastern side of Lake Monona and seasonally near Lake Wingra.

"They came to Madison for fish," says Holzhueter. "The isthmus was an awfully swampy place. Who wants to be where there are black flies and mosquitoes by the millions?"

Later, after settlers learned the land and dug wells, "the amateur fisherman makes catches of 150 pounds for a day's sport," reported The Sunday Milwaukee Telegraph in 1890. The lakes still had "vast fields of wild rice."

George Stoner's family arrived in Madison soon after the Pecks, just short of his seventh birthday. He later wrote a history column for the Madison Democrat newspaper.

"I have seen deer grazing where the Capitol park now stands; while in the east bay of Maple Bluff they were visible at almost any hour of the day," he recalled in 1896.

Some 500 deer were taken in 1849 during a single Ho-Chunk drive on the northeast side. "Ducks, geese, quail, pheasants and prairie chicken could be numbered by the million," Stoner said. "In an early day, the surface of Lake Mendota would be literally black with ducks, for acres and acres, and when they arose from the water the roaring sound produced might easily be mistaken for thunder."

The earliest settlers, however, couldn't get at the bounty all around them. "The menu was rather slim for some time," Stoner noted. Pioneers used an abandoned Native American garden near the intersection of Pinckney Street and East Washington Avenue. Otherwise, they depended on goods shipped at high cost from St. Louis via Galena, Ill.

Fewer than 30 European-Americans lived in all of Dane County. The nearest flour mill was in Beloit - a two-week trip by wagon. Pioneers instead boiled wheat and used a carpenter's plane to shave dried corn from the cob. Adjusted for inflation, a dozen eggs cost more than $20.

One of the pioneers recalled that for 10 days he subsisted entirely upon a bulbous marsh root that the Ho-Chunk also consumed. Near the northern shore of Lake Mendota, the "standing dish" at the cabin of French-Indian trader Michel St. Cyr was muskrat pie. One traveler wondered if Madison coffee were made from acorns.

"The only luxury in the way of fruit we were permitted to indulge in for years was crabapples, choke cherries and sour grapes, while pumpkin and watermelon rind were sometimes converted into preserves which were regarded as a great delicacy," recalled Stoner in 1896. A rare treat was maple syrup from trees tapped in Maple Bluff by the Ho-Chunk.

Still, a year after arriving, in 1838 settlers gathered at the Peck cabin to enjoy the village's first Thanksgiving, in part to celebrate nearing completion of the Capitol. The Ho-Chunk may have been invited; the Pecks and their son had included them in a Fourth of July feast the year before, when a cattle drive headed to Green Bay offered a windfall of beef.

We don't know what date they celebrated Thanksgiving. One press report a century later names early December, but that seems unlikely. The meal was probably outside, pointing to an earlier date. The house was small, there were at least 40 to feed, and an early history notes that "the grand dining room was as well ventilated as the winds of heaven could make it, the hospitable board being laid in the open air."

"Such a thing as a cook stove was then unknown, unseen and unheard of in this wilderness country - the cooking being done over an open fire," recalled Stoner.

That first Madison Thanksgiving "was probably not very sumptuous," reported the State Journal in 1930, based on Historical Society records. "The viands no doubt consisted of venison, fish, Indian potatoes, cranberries and other native products." It's unlikely that it included turkey, although they "ran wild over the present university campus." Later, Roseline Peck wrote of turkey being an impossible early luxury.

The Pecks likely paid the Ho-Chunk for their Thanksgiving. "Other writers have left memoirs in which they have made statements that the fish caught for the big dinners was all caught on contract by Indians" as well as traders, recalled David Atwood in 1919. He had arrived in Madison in 1847 and for decades served as editor and publisher of the State Journal. "These men also furnished what wild game was eaten."

But Wisconsin's earliest-recorded and perhaps best-known Thanksgiving was in 1659. Pierre Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers, the first French explorers to enter the state since Jean Nicollet, ran out of provisions during a hard winter in what is today Bayfield County.

They ate their dogs. They backtracked to their previous camps and dug the refuse of past meals from snowbanks. They boiled guts, skin and sinew and consumed it. They crushed and ate powdered bones. Some of the hair from hides was burned for fire, "the rest goes downe our throats, eating heartily these things most abhorred," Radisson later wrote. "We went so eagerly for it that our gums did bleede like one newly wounded."

They started to eat wood.

"Finaly we became the very Image of death. We mistook ourselves very often, taking the living for the dead and ye dead for the living."

They were rescued by the Odawa (Ottowa), who fed them wild rice, turkey and other foods. Groseilliers gave a speech of thanksgiving. The pair were later reclothed and underwent a series of Odawa ceremonies they did not understand.

"After this," wrote Groseilliers, "they weeped upon our heads until we weare wetted by their tears."

It's a good reminder of how lucky many of us are on Thanksgiving. So, too, are the words of Madison's first housekeeper, Roseline Peck.

"Ho, Madison and its once starved and hungry crew," she wrote, after leaving the capital for Baraboo. "Have charity more for sister and brother, whilst gorging their pie, cakes and beef."

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