November 2005 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts





Burro Schmidt's

Tunnel Update

Burro Schmidt's "Famous Tunnel" now has a group of "friends" trying to preserve and protect the site.   

Click the photo to visit  their Website.



Click on the photo below to read more about Cerro Gordo.

Cerro Gordo now has its own Web site. Click the link below to visit.







The Panamint Breeze is a new publication highlighting the history and legends California and Nevada.  

Click on the logo for details.

California Dreamin' On A Thanksgiving Day

by Cecile Page Vargo

           As a child I don't remember a lot about family Thanksgiving dinners, except that once or twice we got together with relatives in the San Fernando Valley and sat down to the traditional roasted turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, a vegetable of some sort, dinner rolls, and pumpkin pie. I also have an image of spending the day before the meal with my cousins sitting under a large tree picking pecans and eating them. I remember that my father being a baker, he normally had to work on the major eating holidays of the year, so family Thanksgiving's were not a big deal most of the time. As a young teenager, I do have memories of our little family of five getting in the car and heading a mile up Ocean View Boulevard from our house. Traditional Thanksgiving weather always seemed to bring warm dry Santa Anas that cleared the autumn fog and the heavy layers of Los Angeles smog to reveal great views of the vast body of water that borders the state of California from our high foothill vantage point. Driving to enjoy that ocean view is probably the closest to a Thanksgiving tradition, that I can remember.

Visions Of The First Thanksgiving

          While my family Thanksgiving memories are probably not comparable to most family memories, I do have very strong images in my head of the Pilgrims first Thanksgiving. Of course that includes the Pilgrims in their black outfits with oversized white collar and cuffs, the wide brim hats, and the Indians with painted faces, fringed buckskin outfits, and head feathers, sitting down to an oversize picnic table feasting on all the foods mentioned in the previous paragraph and more. And somehow, I always imagine they enjoyed a bowl of popcorn after it was all said and done, although I doubt, like many 21st century families, that they sat down and watched a football game or a  favorite DVD while they ate their popcorn.  

The rare and endangered turkey caterpillar (gobble wormus) may have been served at an early California Thanksgiving celebration if the Pilgrims had arrived on the Pacific Coast instead of Plymouth Rock.

         A quick search on the internet and I find that the Pilgrim Thanksgiving was not at all as most of  have been brainwashed to believe. Let us refer to Edward Winslow's account of the original 1621 Thanksgiving event in this letter dated December 12, 1621 which was published the following year and appeared in chapter 6 of "Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth":

 Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had good increase of Indian corn and our barley indifferent and good, but our peas not worth the gathering, we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming against us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of god, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

         Hmmm…… where's the turkey?  Fortunately twenty years later, William Bradford's history "Of Plymouth Plantation, brings the big wild bird into the picture for us in his account:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached of what this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England , which were not feigned but true reports.

       Whew!  Glad that's resolved, although I'm not sure how from this harvest feast of plenty we got to the Walton Family or Martha Stewart Thanksgiving's that most of us celebrate today. 

        Now all of this leads me to wonder, what if through some weird chance of fate, the Pilgrim's landed in the Pacific Ocean instead of the Atlantic, and somehow wandered across the beaches, the mountains and the deserts,  to the Eastern Sierras and the Owens Valley areas?

The Pilgrims & The Piutes

        Imagine the weary Pilgrims crossing over the great Sierras and winding up in either Owens or Mono Lake areas. The natives, collectively known as Piutes in this part of California , would have barely been clothed in hardly anything at all if it was a warm day. The men probably wore aprons consisting of rabbit skins attached by a thong around their waists. The women would be wearing  mini skirts of sagebrush fiber and rabbit skin. The children were more than likely running around buck naked. During colder weather everyone would have been clad in skirts and breechclouts made of animal skins. Rabbit skins tied together made warm robes. 

          If it was a celebration day the braves would be wearing headdresses made of both eagle feathers and rabbit skins, but most days they wore no head covering. The women chose to wear pot baskets on their heads. And everyone would have faces decorated with paints in oranges, reds, yellows and blues produced from local vegetation and minerals. Decorative patterns drawn from the lower lip and chin, or the corners of the mouth to the ear lobe, seemed to have a meaning of some sort. Cheek bones were often accented with lines in various directions. Chin lines painted on women possibly kept track of the number of children a mother had given birth to. Men wore broader paint marks and made use of a lot of white that came from places like the chalk hills of Big Pine. Male Indian dancers at tribal gatherings stuck pieces of rabbit skin here and there all over their bodies. What a curious sight these Indians would have been to the European travelers looking for a new home in a new land. 

          Fortunately for the Pilgrims, the Owens Valley & Mono Basin Indians were a relatively friendly lot. The young brave that first saw the white men coming down the Sierras would have excitedly hollered out "Nin-nih!"  (pronounced "nin-nick" according to author W. A. Chalfant). As they approached the dome-like structures we know as wickiups, that are made from native local branches and  grasses that dotted the valley,  the Indians would have welcomed the Pilgrims to their "e-no-vi" (home) then led them to the "moo-za",  (home of importance) of the "Po-ko-nah-be" (the chief).  A "pah-mu-e-tu-ah-te" (town meeting) would have been called, and it was jointly decided by both Indian & Pilgrim alike to celebrate their new friendship with a feast. As they came to this decision, perhaps a "Hai-wee" (dove) flew over.

Plentiful Pinyon Harvest

          It was a good year for the Piutes when the Pilgrims arrived and they were more than happy to share in their rich harvest. Hunting parties had recently brought in deer and antelope. Fishermen had spent long nights building a big fire along the fresh water banks to attract chubs, suckers, and tiny minnows, then used  bone fishhooks and barbed obsidian or bone pointed spears to catch them. There was also an abundance of wild onions, lily bulbs, wild roots, flowers, berries, and seeds that were edible and prepared in various dishes by the Indian women. Long hours were spent at bowl like rocks grinding various ingredients which would be used in breads or cakes and soups.

          A group of Pilgrims were taken to the higher country where the pinyon pines grew. They watched as the Indians beat the cones from the trees, then laid them in the sun to dry and spread apart. In colder years artificial heat would be used to force the process along, then seeds shaken or beaten out of the cones with sticks. The "tu-ba" (nuts) were then put into baskets with live coals and shaken or stirred as they cooked. Some seeds were eaten as they were roasted, others were ground up for mush or soup. There was lots of laughter amongst the Indians as they tried to get the white men to understand how an ice cream like treat was prepared in the winter by mixing the pinyon meal with water and allowing the thick mush that formed to freeze.

Kutsavi Time

          Back along the shores of either Owens & Mono Lakes following the pinyon harvest, the Pilgrims would have noticed swarms of black flies at the shores. If they kept a record of their Pacific landing and subsequent journey to the Eastern Sierras, perhaps the scene at the salty lakes would have been described much as J. Ross Browne did a couple of centuries later:

A curious and rather disgusting deposit of worms about two feet high by thee or four in thickness, extends like a vast rim around the shores of the lake. I saw no end to it during a walk of several miles along the beach. These worms are the larvae of  flies, originally deposited in a floating tissue on the surface of the water. So far as I could discover most of them were dead. They lay in a solid oily mass, exhaling a peculiar though not unpleasant odor in the sun. Swarms of small black flies covered them to the depth of several inches. Such was the multitude of these flies that my progress was frequently arrested by them as they flew up. Whether they were engaged in an attempt to identify their own progeny, or, cannibal-like, were devouring the children of their enemies, it was impossible to determine. The former seemed to be rather a hopeless undertaking amid such a mixed crowd. The air for a circle of several yards was blackened with these flies and their buzz sounded like the brewing of a distant storm. My eyes, nose, mouth, and ears were filled. I could not beat them off. Wherever they lit there they remained, sluggish and slimy. I fain had to rush out of reach and seek a breath-place some distance from the festive scene.

          It would appear that the worms, as soon as they attain the power of locomotion, creep up from the water, or are deposited on the beach by the waves during some of these violent gales which prevail in this region. The Mono Indians derive from them a fruitful source of subsistence. By drying them in the sun and mixing them with acorns, berries, grass-seeds, and other articles of food gathered up in the mountains, they make a conglomerate called "cuchaba", which they use as a kind of bread. I am told it is very nutritious and not at all unpalatable. The worms are also eaten in their natural condition. It is considered a delicacy to fry them in their own grease. When properly prepared by a skillful cook they resemble pork "cracklings." I was not hungry enough to require one of these dishes during my sojourn, but would recommend any friend who may visit the lake to eat a pound or two and let me know the result at his earliest convenience. In fact, I don't yearn for fat worms as an article of diet, though almost any kind of food is acceptable when my appetite is good. There must be hundreds, perhaps thousands of tons of these oleaginous insects cast up on the beach every year. There is no danger of starvation on the shores of Mono. The inhabitants may be snowed in or flooded out, or cut off by aboriginal hordes, but they can always rely upon the beach for fat meat.

Please Pass The Piagi

        The Pilgrim, of course, could not have afforded the luxury of turning down the "kutsavi" like J. Ross Browne did. It might have turned their California Thanksgiving into a Roanoke type disaster and our story would end here. The tasty brine fly delicacy was not the only treat in store for the Pilgrims. Nor was it the only larvae that would be served for the great feast. With any luck the Pilgrims would have arrived on the alternate year of the great "piagi" harvest. The Pandora Moth feeds on the Jeffrey Pine needles found north of Mammoth Lakes , when it is in it's larval stage of life. The caterpillar, usually the size of a little finger, is collected in early July when they fall from the trees. Since the life cycle of the moth takes two years, the Indians would only collect every other year.

       Indian families migrated to the Jeffrey pine forests, setting up camp for a week to ten days. A great circular trench was dug around the largest of the trees. The larvae or "piagi" as they called it, would fall into the trenches as it descended from the trees, and would not be able to get out of the trench walls. Some Indians would use fire or smoke to encourage the peaghi out of the trees. The Indians collected the peaghi in basketry winnowing trays. The peaghi was often buried in hot coals and cooked in it's own juices. Some was stored in the pines for a later time and others were taken back to the villages.

Thanksgiving California Style

      Now, we have everything for the first Thanksgiving California style. Perhaps they started with a tasty kutsavi appetizer, a wild onion salad, then a  little fish and game, served with a delightful piagi stuffing, maybe? And perhaps if we're really lucky there were some dried buckleberries left over from the summer pickings, which the Pilgrims would have turned into a buckleberry pie, topped with traditional pinyon nut ice cream. Pilgrim and Piute, squatting over the campfire with their wicker dishes on a cold November evening, feasting together, thankful, and prayerful, as the sun sets over the great Sierra mountains to the west.

                     O great spirit, whose breath gives life to all the world, hear


                     I am small and weak. I need your strength.

                     Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes behold

                     the red and purple sunset.

                     Make my hands respect the things you have made,

                     and my ears sharp to hear your voice.

                     Make me wise so that I may understand the things

                     you have taught my people.

                     Let me learn the lessons you have hidden

                     in every leaf and rock.

                     I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother,

                     but to fight my greatest enemy--myself.

                     Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands

                     and straight eyes.

                     So when life fades, as the fading sunset,

                     My spirit may come to you without shame


An Indian Prayer… unknown……taken from "Man From Mono" by Lily Mathieu La Braque


A Trip To Bodie Bluff And the Dead Sea of the West ( Mono Lake ) in 1863

By J. Ross Browne


Golden, Colorado


Man From Mono

By Lily Mathieu La Braque

Nevada Academic Press


Mono Lake Guidebook, Self Guided tour

By David Gaines

Kustavi Books

Lee Vining, CA


Paiute, Prospector, Pioneer, The Bodie-Mono Lake Area In the Nineteenth Century

By Thomas C. Fletcher

Artemesia Press

Lee Vining, CA


Saga of Inyo County: Southern Inyo AARP

Taylor Publishing

Covina , CA


The Story of Inyo

By W. A. Chalfant

Chalfant Press

Bishop, CA


The Pilgrims 1621 Thanksgiving




The Truth About The Pilgrims and Thanksgiving

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