NOVEMBER 22, 2002




West of the Mississippi, nobody ever heard of the Pilgrims, and if they did people would rightly consider the bunch to have been a pack of tight-ass ingrates who cheerfully murdered those who had offered life-saving substance only a few years previously, and who had gotten kicked out of Europe in the first place because of their intolerant and pinched view of life.

Nevertheless we do celebrate the Thanksgiving as a way of giving a nod to the Cosmic Whatever for allowing us to get this far and to count the blessings with which we are gifted. The story of the First California Thanksgiving is a fine one, and all the better for its freedom from religious zealotry. And who should have begun this august institution here west of the Sierra but, you guessed it, the descendents of Oog and Aag.

few turkeys are to be found up in those hills

The first "official" thanksgiving took place on November 30, 1850 at the decree of then governor Burnett, and it is assumed by many that the celebration occured largely because of the enormous contingent of New Englanders who had swarmed over the Sierra as part of the '49 Gold Rush. It seems the platillo enjoyed in the mining camps consisted largely of jackrabbit, as few turkeys were to be found up in those hills in those days. Truthfully, deer having been hunted out of the hills long ago, and bear having become largely mythological even as early as 1850, any sort of meat at all was hailed as a god-damn god-send. Nowadays, of course, California is thronging with turkeys running wild everywhere.

In fact, Thanksgiving in California had occurred much earlier and records go back quite a ways. Even before the Pilgrims had landed, in fact. There is record of one Spanish explorer Don Juan de Oņate, who, according to documented Spanish historical records, celebrated the first Thanksgiving day in El Paso del Norte, right by the river banks in 1598, roughly fifty years before the first Anglo Saxon Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth Rock.

Of course, that was in modern-day Texas, which everybody knows does not count unless you are Lyle Lovett.

These swellings are called "buboes"

What really happened what this: In the town of Hapless Camp, the memory of which has now dissolved from the history books, there lived 148 would-be 49'ers, two female, mostly-Chinese, cooks named Nellie and Isabelle, who pleasured the miners with food and other fine things, and their poodle, named Cheesin-Lo. About August, end of summer, a particular flea bit a particular miner, named Festus, and he subsequently expired of a terrible fever that featured these obnoxious swellings all over his body. These swellings are called "buboes" and this thing he died of is called commonly "Bubonic Plague". Unfortunately, Festus was not overly fastidious in his household arrangements and a whole host of fleas enjoyed his syrup before he went.

Well, to make a long, really sad story short, the entire population of Hapless Camp died of the Plague, leaving one, flea-ridden Cheesin-Lo left in search of poodle kibble or whatever he/it could scrounge.

Only god, or Satan, knows what it is that makes poodles free from the plague. In any case, Cheesin ambled down the road toward China Camp, dead set on getting more feed and unconsciously dead-set on infecting the entire population of the Sierra with the dreaded Plague, for China Camp was at that time the nexus of activity through which all of the Gold Country traffic traveled. Had Cheesin reached China Camp, he/she/it would have sent the contagion on across the valley to SF and beyond.

Here it was that Festus Jacinto Mariposa deOog, passing along with his blunderbuss, happened to discover the animal, a clear shot, right in the middle of the road. Keep in mind that in this time, with no deer, no bear, no cows in the hills to speak of, any sort of meat was heartily welcome. So it was that Oog shot Cheesin square between the eyes. Then, he hauled up the flea-bitten carcass on his shoulder and trudged off to find a place to skin the thing and eat it.

Now here our tale becomes somewhat questionable, we understand. Why Oog would have turned aside from the main path back to his cabin so as to find a better place to roast a dead dog, history does not record. Perhaps he noticed some secret sign on a tree now long since cut for BBQ briquets or perhaps he simply wanted to gut and clean the animal away from his dwelling. Who knows? In any case, Oog wandered from the main path and soon fell, poodle and self, into a long shaft at the end of which he landed with a thump that broke his leg.

As he lay unconscious, several fleas took this opportunity to bite him. This was not a good thing.

If'n you find this 'n me, remember me. Mah name is . . . "

After he was finished being unconscious, he woke up. Then, his next step was to regret being awake for the pain in his leg was most excruciating. With his handy flintlock tinder he lit a small fire so as to see where he had ended up. In fact, he lay upon a chest, quite smashed by his fall, of thousands of gold coins. And to the side lay a skeleton. In the boney hand of the skeleton was a piece of paper. On this piece of paper were written the following words, "This be the long lost Mariposa Treasure. If'n you find this 'n me, remember me. Mah name is . . . ". Unfortunately, the rest of the note was illegible.

Many hours, perhaps days, passed before Oog heard a voice at the top of the shaft. "Halloo! Enybody down thar?"

It was Aag. Out for his constitutional after his ritual mudbath and Indian sauna. Aag, not particularly industrious by nature, had taken to earning his living by selling shovels to would-be miners. Relaxed and alert, he found this shaft at close of day, from which a strange light emitted. Oog had taken to burning pieces of the treasure chest for light and company and cooking poodle. It was the light and smoke from the burning chest that attracted Aag.

In short order, Oog communicated the essentials: That he was a miner with a broken leg at the bottom of a shaft with an half-eaten poodle on top of a veritable mountain of gold and would offer two-thirds or more to anyone who would get him out.

Sounds fair enough, but, as a Golden State native, Aag was always alert to "the Catch".

Unwisely, Oog added that he had a terrible fever going on and it seemed there were these "swellings going on" all over his body.

Now, Aag was no dummy. He knew about the Plague. He knew what it meant for the relative capacity of science in his day. And all he knew about catching it was from hearsay, which said, "You so much as breath near such an infected person and you gonna DIE  fur sure!" And he thought about the thousands of men who had swarmed over the Sierra crest now all living close to one another.

"Okay," he said. "I'll be back." In truth, he was. With the first mechanical "bulldozer" ever seen. He got two bulls from a paddock and built himself a flatboard with a backwards hitch on it so that the bulls could push this thing forwards. He then mounted the contraption on the tailings from the old mine and then drove the bulls forward, shoving about a half-ton of earth over the old mine shaft hole. Then he did it again and then went away.

The best we can say about the poor feller under about a ton of gravel and dirt is that Oog died of suffocation before the buboes really got him. And that the entire population of the Sierra survived.

the life of a wannabee gold miner was difficult

The following day, Aag held a great feast to give thanks to the gods and to whatever for having saved the entire population of California from a terrible fate. And there you have it, the real and absolutely true story of how thanksgiving came west of the Mississippi River.  All the other mining camps up there took up the practice as well, for the life of a wannabee gold miner was difficult and fraught with mountain lions, poor diet, bad mud, nervous jumping up and down and, generally, very little gold. So these fellas working up in the hills thousands of miles from home dearly loved a party with drinking and carousing and good eats and raucous music.  Which brings us to the beginnings of rock n roll, but that is another story.


Here on the Island we have our own little rituals.  The 4th Annual Island Poodleshoot and BBQ gets underway at dawn on Thursday.  Aspiring hunters and lovers of good BBQ need to check out The Official Poodleshoot Rules Page for further info.  You can find an account of last year's event here, which can be downloaded by right clicking and then doing a "save as" sorta thing. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader.

We all love a good feed and a jolly good time as well as that good old tradition and we are full of it here on the Island.  Everybody says so. 

Now here's some holiday advice for y'all.  Don't drive anywhere: assume every third automobile contains an incompetant boob who learned how to drive on a Hong Kong Carnival ride.  Realize there aint nothing that is gonna change Uncle Ted and Aunt Whizbang in a day; they've been going at it for years.  As for Uncle Bob who gets drunk every year and shoves his hands into the taters, we suggest purchasing two items beforehand: 80,000 volt stun gun and a pair of handcuffs.  Things will go much better after ya invite him down to the basement to "fetch a nip or two."  Believe me. 

Well, that's the way it is on the Island.  Have a grand week and try not to eat too much.