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No Thanksgiving turkeys for pioneers in Copper Country

When Abraham Lincoln declared, in 1863, the fourth Thursday in November as the official day to celebrate Thanksgiving, some areas had been celebrating the holiday and giving thanks had been popular for the harvest, in certain parts of the country, for over a century.

One of America’s Founding Fathers,Alexander Hamilton, once remarked, “No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.”

With the ratification of the treaty of La Pointe in March, 1843, the Lake Superior copper district was opened to mining and settlement, a full 20 years before Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday. And while Alexander Hamilton made his historic remark in the 1780s, very few of the residents of the copper district were U.S. citizens. Most of them were Cornish.

Like any other geographic region, food in Cornwall was based on what the region could or would produce. For instance, Cornwall’s soil was not ideal for agriculture, but it would support cattle. Cornwall is also surrounded by water on three sides, so much of the Cornish diet was based on seafood and dairy-based products.

There was Yarg, a cheese made from Friesian cow milk, coated in nettle, which caused a gray mould that was eaten with the cheese. Along with Yarg, was clotted cream, similar to butter. One of the less appetizing dishes (at least to modern day Americans, probably), is Stargazy Pie, made with bacon, mustard, eggs, onions, and small fish, arranged in such a way that their heads protrude from the crust, pointing upward. It is still popular in Cornwall. And of course, a Cornish delicacy was, and is, the saffron bun. Sadly, none of this was available on the frontier in the 1840s. If cattle were present on the Lake Superior frontier, they were oxen for mine work, and not dairy cows. Milk, of course, having an extremely limited shelf life, was not commonly available. What the Cornish did have available was what anybody else on the south shore of Lake Superior had to eat: half-rotten food stored in wooden barrels. And by February, that made a tasty dish.

John H. Forster, an early pioneer, and agent at one of the mines on the Keweenaw Peninsula in 1846, wrote of that hard winter, and described the food situation there.

“We had plenty of potatoes, salt white fish, and a little flour, but one barrel of pork to last seven months.”

With a small work crew, meals were cooked and served in a common kitchen, by the wife of a French employee. Forster was quite impressed with her resourcefulness. For Lent, she declared quite a few months before Lent actually began, the crew would live on fish until spring. She did not exaggerate.

She prepared, Forster wrote, “fish chowder, fish balls, fish stews, with potatoes and without, boiled fish, broiled fish,…” and what became a very popular dish, “salt fish pie, with a delicate crust, baked in a large tin pan.”

During that winter, he wrote, they had but one dish of fresh beef, which was the result of the accidental death of a work ox at a neighboring mine.

Salt fish of various kinds was abundant on the frontier, because there was plenty of it, and because it was procured locally, it was cheap. The average price of fish per barrel, in 1840, was eight dollars, according to John MacGregor’s Commercial Statistics for 1847, but purchasing locally saved shipping costs. On the other hand, the next most mentioned meat in historical documents is pork. According to Niles’ National Register, Volumes 62-63, for Sept. 10, 1842, pork averaged from $12 to $13 per 100-pound barrel, without the added charges for salting, shipping, and haulage around the falls at Sault Ste. Marie. Hams and shoulders were were also available. Salt beef, meanwhile, was selling for $15.50 per 200-pound barrel in Ohio markets, from where many winter provisions were ordered and purchased.

Henry Hobart, school teacher at the Cliff Mine, boarded with Joseph Rawlings, a Cornish engineer and his wife, where Hobart was less than thrilled with his fare.

“No meat, stale butter, old molasses,” he complained in his journal on April 23, 1864, “white bread, which I like if there some corn bread once in a while. But I get tired of it without milk, no pies or anything inviting … I have had one or two eggs just enough to inform me that they go fine but I cannot have them. The warehouse pork would do for one to eat who had lost their sense of smell. In any other circumstance it is a no go.”

Hobart, from Vermont, was self-indulged, arrogant, and young at 21 years of age, who was used to farm-fresh food, so, his complaints are understandable.

While he complained of “warehouse pork,” Forster and his crew conserved theirs, in stead, eating fish every day, and felt fortunate to have that. By March and into April, as provision stores became exhausted, even half-rotten, salted pork was acceptable. But Hobart still managed to complain.

“…after partaking of a breakfast of salt mackerel & wheat bread,” he wrote wrote on March 15, 1863, “by the way wheat bread is the mainstay. It constitutes the breakfast & I get very sick of it. Potatoes are seldom used.”

May 1, 1863 was a day of rejoicing at the Cliff and in Eagle River, Hobart wrote in journal.

“We have been in a starving condition or deprived of meat and almost everything else except bread and yesterday a boat came in at (Eagle) River with cattle and many fresh articles from below necessary to supply our physical wants.

For the pioneer residents of the Lake Superior copper districts, Spring, rather than early winter, was a much more appropriate time to five thanks, but only after the first supply ship of the season arrived.

Once winter loosened its iron grip, anything that flew became “fair game.” That included ducks, geese, loons, crows, seagulls, seagull eggs, carrier pigeons, even porcupines were not safe from human consumption. But, there were no New England turkeys.

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