During their first winter in Wisconsin in 1659, French traders Pierre Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers, nearly starved to death. Wandering the frozen grounds of the Northwoods, Radisson and Groseilliers struggled to find food. They eventually resorted to eating their two dogs before finding exiled Ottawas to live among for the winter. There, at the headwaters of the Chippewa River, Radisson and Groseilliers were given wild rice and other fowl, including wild turkey, prepared by the Ottawas. Groseilliers gave a speech of thanksgiving.
While not exactly the feast enjoyed by the Pilgrims in the fall of 1621 during the harvest celebration in Plymouth, Massachusettes, the Ottawas saved Radisson and Groseilliers from almost certain death — just as the Wampanoags did for the Pilgrims.
The Thanksgiving we know today, had nothing to do with the 1621 harvest celebration. That celebration was part of a Puritan tradition of fasting and festive rejoicing in the fall. Governors of each colony, and eventually states, declared a day of thanksgiving each year. As New Englanders moved west, they took their holiday with them.
Wisconsin’s first official Thanksgiving was declared in 1830. Governor Lewis Cass, then governor of the territory of Michigan in which Wisconsin was included at the time, issued a proclamation setting aside the last Thursday of November for celebration of Thanksgiving.
In the mid-19th century, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, launched a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Her efforts paid off on October 3, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day.
Today Thanksgiving is celebrated in the United States with food and fellowship shared with family and friends. Although the meal may not resemble the one served in 1621, the idea of giving thanks remains.