Thanksgiving: A Transatlantic Ties update

By Jo McConville, Transatlantic Ties project archivist. You can read more on the TT project here.

For a long time, I didn’t really ‘get’ Thanksgiving. Perhaps not so surprising, given that it’s such a distinctively American holiday which doesn’t register on our British calendars. My main exposure to it came during my 1990s Friends obsession, where one episode a season would feature turkey and pumpkin pie related shenanigans.

The holiday stems from the peace treaty made between the Wampanoag tribe (who inhabited modern-day Massachussetts and Rhode Island) and the group of English Puritan Settlers later known as the Pilgrims who arrived in what became the Plymouth colony in 1620. According to tradition, the treaty was celebrated by the two groups sharing a harvest feast in 1621 of foods native to the New World – thus the potatoes, pumpkins and cranberries of the classic Thanksgiving dinner.

Of course, it needs to be acknowledged at this point that there’s a more complex reality behind the Thanksgiving story and it’s important not to gloss over that. You can read more on this on the Smithsonian website.

In any event, when I was asked to write a Transatlantic Ties post for Thanksgiving, I began to pore over the documents we had found for the project so far, thinking in particular about various letters written by emigrants to their families back in Sussex. How perfect it would be to find some account of these folks celebrating the holiday in their adopted country? Well, that didn’t happen I’m afraid, but here’s something else instead.

Several small accessions in the WSRO catalogue comprise papers of the Cheal family who for many years ran Lowfield Nurseries near Crawley. Amongst some of the family correspondence, I found a number of letters written to Mary Cheal (1816-1893), wife of John Cheal who founded the family business. Three of these came from her sister Deborah Standing, who emigrated to the United States in around 1870 with her husband George and her sons and set up a new life in Iowa.

Envelope addressed to John Cheal of Crawley, Sussex, 1888. Postmarked United States of America – Add Mss 26212

As might be expected, the letters are filled with family news and refer to numerous relatives both in England and in the States. I might add that this all set me off on a mini research journey into the Cheal and Standing family history which I came to realise would need an additional post all of its own… (watch this space)

In the meantime, however, one sentence from a letter dated 16th January 1891 caught my eye. Deborah writes of a trip to visit ‘Henry’ in Dakota, with ‘Father and Alfred’ fitting a cover to the hack or carriage and embarking on the 350 mile journey.[1] During this time, she writes:

“…they had to go thro’ [sic] an Indian reservation, and on their return one of the Indians asked them to dine with him which they did…” – Add Mss 26214

Please note that some language used in the original letter (Add Mss 26214) is archaic. We have endeavoured to use terminology such as ‘Native American’ and tribal names, outside of direct quotes from primary resources, in this blog.

With my curiosity piqued, I decided some (extremely) amateur sleuthing was called for. Deborah gives no further details about the reservation, or its inhabitants, so all I knew was that this had taken place en route between the Standing farm in (or near) Earlham, Iowa[2]  and Henry’s home in Dakota.

Given the date of the letter (1891), my best bet for finding out where Henry was living at the time should have been the 1890 US Federal census – alas, this was almost entirely destroyed in a fire in 1921. Deborah writes that Henry has been in Dakota for ‘about 6 ½ years’, so would have moved probably sometime in 1884 as the letter is written in January. I managed to find Henry Standing – a farmer born in England, listed in the South Dakota Territorial Census[3] of 1885 with his wife (who appears to be ‘Eunice’ as in Deborah’s letter, although it may be misspelled) and a daughter, Edith. The family are living in Charles Mix County, along the southern border of South Dakota.

Obviously this is six years later and it may be that Henry has moved elsewhere in the state, but a search on good old Google Maps gives the distance from Adams, Iowa to Charles Mix County, South Dakota as around 300 miles by the most direct route (although regrettably Google doesn’t include horse and carriage in its travel options) – which isn’t too far off the 350 mile journey described by Deborah. 

Now, with the disclaimer that all of this is educated guesswork rather than fact, I looked for a map showing where Native American reservations existed at around this time in the 1890s. Consulting a Library of Congress map from 1883 in conjunction with more modern maps of the area, I could see that there were several possibilities; depending on what route had been taken, George and Alfred Standing might have passed through the Omaha or Winnebago reservations across the Nebraska border. However, assuming Henry Standing had remained living in Charles Mix County, perhaps the most likely is the Yankton Reservation which occupies the eastern part of Charles Mix County itself.

Yankton Reservation

The Yankton Reservation was founded in 1853. It was (and remains) home to the Yankton Sioux tribe, part of the western branch of the Dakota people who in turn form part of the Sioux group of tribes. It’s impossible here to explore this subject here with the depth it merits but a brief look at the reservation’s history reveals a dismally predictable theme.  Under mounting pressure to open their lands up to white settlement, in April 1858 the tribe signed the Yankton treaty which ceded most of eastern South Dakota to the United States government and confined the Yankton Sioux to their reservation. Overseeing the treaty on behalf of the government was one Charles Eli Mix – for whom the county is named.

Yankton Reservation as shown on Google Maps (2020)

Whether George and Alfred Standing’s dinner hosts were members of the Yankton Sioux or another tribe in another reservation, they could hardly be expected to harbour naturally warm feelings towards white settlers – the very people responsible for the loss of their land and the diminishment of their way of life. I suppose this is what makes the almost throwaway sentence in Deborah’s letter stand out to me – this act of hospitality and generosity which is barely remarked upon, but which is, on reflection, quite remarkable.

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[1] According to my forays into Ancestry, both Henry and Alfred were sons of George and Deborah, with Henry in his early thirties at this time and married with four children of his own.

[2] In fact according to census data from both 1880 (US Federal census) and 1885 (Iowa state census collection), although Deborah addresses her letters ‘Earlham, Madison Co’, the Standing family were living in Adams Township in Dallas County.

[3] North and South Dakota were both admitted to the Union as states in 1889.

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