The Story of Oregon’s Two Thanksgivings

November 23, 2021

By Amy E. Platt

On November 1, 1893, Oregon Gov. Sylvester Pennoyer made a proclamation that the fourth Thursday in November would be celebrated as Thanksgiving, contradicting national traditions first established by President Lincoln. Image courtesy of Oregon State Library.

It’s an economic one, in the passive-aggressive sense of the word.

For several years before the Panic of 1893, Oregon Governor Sylvester Pennoyer (known by his political rivals as Sylpester Annoyer) and President Grover Cleveland, both Democrats, had been at odds. Pennoyer was a pro-labor (and pro-slavery) nativist, with intense prejudice against Chinese immigrants, whom he claimed were taking jobs from white Americans. (They were not.) He infamously rebuked President Cleveland’s personal request in 1893 to protect Chinese workers from violence. He made no move to follow the order, but instead sent a telegram, addressed to Washington, D.C.: “I will attend to my business. Let the president attend to his.”

Pennoyer’s populistic rhetoric was sympathetic to farmers and the “little guy,” so it makes sense that he supported the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, passed by President William Henry Harrison in 1890. The law was designed to increase the circulation of money and make it available at cheaper prices by manipulating the silver market. The act forced the government to buy millions of ounces of silver each month in order to “back” dollars, which were formerly backed only by gold. Not-so-precious silver was coming into the U.S. Treasury, very-precious gold was going out of circulation, and cheap dollars (backed now by bountiful silver as well as gold) were flooding the economy, resulting in inflation.

Telegram from Sylvester Pennoyer to W.Q. Graham, May 1893. OHS Research Library, Mss 1521, box 1, folder 24.
Sylvester Pennoyer was a pro-labor, pro-slavery candidate, who rose to the governor’s office in 1866 as a leader in the anti-Chinese crusade in Oregon. This May 1893 telegram is a response to President Grover Cleveland’s call to protect Chinese workers from mob violence occurring in the West. OHS Research Library, Mss 1521, box 1, folder 13.

High inflation makes debt easier to pay off, and farmers were drowning in debt in 1890. Western states were swimming in silver, so Oregon farmers and silver miners benefited significantly from the act. Pennoyer was a fan, so he was furious when newly elected President Cleveland reversed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893. (Remember that Cleveland was elected to two terms, separated by a Harrison term.)

By February of that year, it was clear that economic trouble was coming. Two major employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company, went into receivership, followed by thousands of smaller companies. Unemployment in the U.S. climbed to 25 percent and people made panicked runs on banks.

Cleveland attributed the Panic of 1893, in part, to the Silver Act and the influx of cheap dollars, the value of which was tied to the ever-changing exchange rate between gold and silver. He wished to steady the dollar by reconnecting it to the gold standard, and only to the gold standard. Congress repealed the act in October 1893, splitting the Democratic Party. Again.

Is it Thanksgiving yet? Almost.

Sylvester Pennoyer. OHS Research Library, ba018278
Sylvester Pennoyer. OHS Research Library, ba018278.

Pro-silver Pennoyer took only a few days to fume before he struck back by preempting President Cleveland’s yearly Thanksgiving proclamation with his own: “I do hereby appoint the fourth Thursday of the present month as a day of Thanksgiving….God has indeed been most beneficent to our State and Nation, and yet unjust and ill-advised Congressional legislation, having made gold alone full legal tender money….I do most earnestly recommend that they should devoutly implore Him to dispose the President and Congress of the United States to secure the restoration of silver as full legal tender….”

President Cleveland followed with his proclamation, naming the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving, as had been the tradition since Lincoln was in office. In 1893, there were five Thursdays in November, so Pennoyer and the president disagreed by a week.

Oregonians found the circumstance completely absurd. Newspapers around the country mocked and berated our governor, and most local newspapers embraced the moment and jointed them, with wit and laughter. “A man who can turn a Thanksgiving proclamation into an advertisement of himself ought to command a large salary as a circus boomer,” wrote the Morning Oregonian. “There was nothing here [in Corvallis] to indicate that this day has been set apart as a day of thanksgiving,” the Oregonian reported on November 24, further stating, “the prevailing sentiment indicates that this community would prefer eating crow with Cleveland to eating turkey with Pennoyer.” The Grants Pass Observer opined that “Pennoyer is an ‘original’ sort of a man and, if given a place in the United States senate, as he seems to be hankering for, he would make more of an ass of his party than Upton did in the last state legislature.” The Dalles Times-Mountaineer published the profound line, “Pennoyer is Pennoyer.” Ed Alisky, Portland bar manager, advertised his “Third Thanksgiving Proclamation” in the Morning Oregonian on November 24: “I, the undersigned, hereby proclaim and set forth the evening of Saturday, November 25, to be celebrated at the opening of the Union Liquor Store, 287 Glisan Street, for Thanksgiving. A luxurious lunch will be served. Come one, come all.”

Officially, Oregon had two Thanksgivings in 1893. Banks, schools, and government offices closed on both Pennoyer’s Thanksgiving, as it came to be known, and the official national Thanksgiving the following week. Unofficially, Oregonians laughed and tutted the extra holiday away as yet another quirk of their temperamental governor.

The animosity between Pennoyer and Cleveland persisted, as did the recession, which lasted until 1897. Oregon’s two Thanksgivings did not. Cleveland made his proclamation in 1894, naming, as expected, the last Thursday in November as the Thanksgiving holiday. Even though there was again a fifth Thursday to play with that year, Pennoyer followed suit in his proclamation, which was short and enigmatic: “I hereby appoint the last Thursday of the month a Thanksgiving holiday. In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider. – Ecclesiastes vii:14.”

The previous June, Oregon held an election for governor, and the Populist party candidate was soundly defeated by Republican William Paine Lord. Pennoyer did not run, but his name was regularly invoked in the aftermath. “Oregon redeems herself! Pennoyerism and populism are downed!” wrote the Ilwaco Journal (quoted by the Morning Oregonian on June 18, 1894).

Pennoyer’s response to the results: “Silence is golden.” Especially when it’s basted twice and served with double gravy.

Sources

“A Model Press Agent.” Portland Morning Oregonian, November 20, 1893, p.6.

“Third Thanksgiving Proclamation.” Advertisement. Morning Oregonian, November 24, 1893, p.5.

“The Governor’s Thanksgiving Day.” Northwest News, Astoria. Morning Oregonian, November 24, 1893, p.2.

“The National Thanksgiving Idea.” Morning Oregonian, November 23, 1893.

“In the Two States, the day for Thanksgiving: In His Proclamation the Governor Asks for Divine Help for the Cause of Silver.” Morning Oregonian, November 2, 1893, p.3.

“Oregon is Ahead.” Morning Oregonian, November 3, 1893.

“Pennoyer’s Thanksgiving.” Sunday Oregonian, November 5, 1893, p.4.

“Two Days of Thanks: Pennoyer and Cleveland Clash.” Morning Oregonian, November 4, 1893.

“The Voice of Washington.” Morning Oregonian, June 18, 1894, p.4.

“Calamity’s Programme. The Method of Pennoyer’s Madness Dissected.” Morning Oregonian, January 8, 1894.

“Thanksgiving Coming.” Albany State Rights Democrat, November 9, 1894.

“Thanksgiving.” Lincoln County Leader, November 8, 1894.

“Thanksgiving Day Set.” Union Semi-Weekly Eastern Oregon Republican, November 5, 1894.

“That Proclamation.” Salem Weekly Oregon Statesman, November 16, 1894.

“The Governor’s Thanksgiving Day.” Morning Oregonian, November 24, 1893. (Offices closed.)

“Grover Cleveland, Message on the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, August 8, 1893.” American History, accessed November 15, 2021. http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1876-1900/grover-cleveland-message-on-the-repeal-of-the-sherman-silver-purchase-act-august-8-1893.php

Spetter, Allan B. “Benjamin Harrison: Domestic Affairs.” University of Virginia, Miller Center, accessed November 15, 2021. https://millercenter.org/president/bharrison/domestic-affairs

MacColl, E. Kimbark. Merchants, Money, & Power. Athens, GA: Georgian Press, 1988, p. 248.

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