This is the time of year when America enjoys turkey, football, floats, family reunions and Black Friday shopping. The “first Thanksgiving,” however, was neither a feast nor a holiday, but a simple gathering.
Following the Mayflower’s arrival at Plymouth Rock on Dec. 11, 1620, the Pilgrims lost over half of their original 102 colonists. Those who survived the bitter winter were helped by the Wampanoag Indians. By some accounts, in celebration, a traditional English harvest festival, brought the Pilgrims and natives together in a “thanksgiving” observance.
But Thanksgiving wasn’t a well-defined tradition until 1863. In the middle of the bloodiest war in American history, President Abraham Lincoln formally established the holiday — for past blessings and for help and healing for those in need.
Thanksgiving has undergone several transitions — from its original expression of gratitude to over-commercialization to, more recently, its repudiation by those believing it represents an insensitive stereotype of Native Americans.
Yet, nothing about human history is ever as simple as it appears. Recognition of what we did wrong, as well as what we did right, is part of understanding the nuance and complexity of history.
While Alaska has a relatively short history as a territory and state, there is much to learn about our own founding — as a state and a community.
Juneau is blessed with a variety of historical sources supported through our community’s library system and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.
Perhaps our most iconic historian, Robert N. DeArmond (1911-2010), spent 70 years documenting Juneau’s history.
Praised as the dean of Alaska historians and newspapermen, DeArmond was a prolific writer. Much of his research documenting the history of the Gastineau Channel area now forms a searchable online database hosted by the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.
The Bob DeArmond Alaska History Project (Digital Bob) began in 2004 after “historical research” was ranked highly in public perception of the museum’s purpose. It can be found at beta.juneau.org/library/museum/digital-bob.
DeArmond’s “Digital Bob” columns describe the founding and development of Juneau and Douglas: the rowdy days of the gold camps, the world’s largest hard-rock gold mines, small-town rivalries, Native rights, fishing, government, and eventually statehood. In the words of museum staff, “Bob portrays Juneau-Douglas for what it is — extraordinary — and his factual accounts can shed light on current events.”
Here are a few snippets from the hundreds of entries:
• SEPTEMBER 4, 1886: Juneau has, since its early days, enjoyed a considerable trade with the Indians of the Lynn Canal section. Now the Indians from Yakutat are beginning to come here to trade instead of going to westward, as has been their custom.
• FEBRUARY 20, 1890: A census of the channel shows that Juneau has a present population of 1,253. The Indian population numbers 527. There are 378 houses in town. Douglas City’s population is 402. There are 122 houses in Douglas.
• AUGUST 21, 1890: Miss R. Scidmore, author of a very interesting and entertaining book on Alaska, is a roundtrip passenger on board the steamer Queen. The ship, with 160 tourists, is making her last trip of the 1890 season.
• SEPTEMBER 3, 1891: The Alaska Treadwell Gold Mining Company now handles about 20,000 tons of ore a month. Last year the company mined 220,980 tons of ore at a total cost of $1.35/ton and net profit of $418,280.
• JUNE 20, 1893: Our esteemed resident, Kola Kowee, chief of the Auks, died at his home here on Saturday, June 3. He was wearing his policeman’s uniform at the time of his death. Long a friend of the white man in this area, Kowee is given much of the credit for the discovery of gold here in 1880, having shown Dick Harris and Joe Juneau that route to Silver Bow Basin.
• MARCH 31, 1897: The sloop Alcedo arrived Tuesday from the halibut banks on Frederick Sound with 8,000 pounds of fish. The fish was packed on fresh glacier ice from Taku and shipped to Seattle on the City of Topeka.
Over one hundred years ago, Juneau was a diverse community and a mining, fishing and tourist town — and we still are.
On this Thanksgiving weekend, let’s remember the shared history that binds our community together and helps guide us forward.
• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.