The Slightly Horrible Story of Wisconsin’s First Thanksgiving

Pierre-Esprit Radisson, French Explorer

Don’t worry…this Thanksgiving story has a happy ending.

But parts of it might make your stomach turn a little.

It happened just 38 years after the Thanksgiving story we all know – the one with the Pilgrims and American Indians and their famous feast. The Pilgrims had to endure harsh winters with little food. But the situation a pair of French explorers and fur traders found themselves in was even worse.

Now – before anyone whines that there is no possible way there was Thanksgiving in Wisconsin during the 1600s – let me explain.

Yes, the first official declaration of a Thanksgiving holiday in our state actually came in 1830 when Wisconsin was still part of the Michigan Territory. It’s believed the first Thanksgiving in Green Bay was celebrated as early as 1833.

But there’s a reason historians say the very first Wisconsin Thanksgiving happened in 1659…

Surviving Wisconsin Winter the Hard Way

1659 is when Pierre-Espirit Radisson and his brother-in-law, Médard Chouart des Groseilliers, set out from Syracuse, New York, and traveled all the way to the far western end of Lake Superior. They were the first explorers to reach Wisconsin since Jean Nicolet.

The pair started their voyage in August. But by the time they finally got to what is now Bayfield County, Wisconsin, the bitter cold had set in. Radisson and Groseilliers nearly starved to death while stranded in the northwoods.

Now we all know how bone-chilling it can get here in Northeast Wisconsin. And we also know that it’s absolutely frigid up by Lake Superior in the wintertime. Just try to imagine camping out in that sort of environment. Remember, these guys did not get their supplies at Cabela’s.

No special cold-weather sleeping bag. No fire-starter sticks. No packets of dehydrated mac and cheese. Nothing.

Soon they ran out of rations and had nothing to eat. So they needed to improvise.

According the Wisconsin Historical Society and Radisson’s account of the voyage the two explorers got pretty desperate.

How desperate?

They ate their own two dogs.

But it didn’t stop there.

According to Jay Rath in his article for the Isthmus, Radisson and Groseilliers also went back to their old campsites and dug through snowbanks to find the bits of food they’d discarded.

They ground bones down into powder so they could eat them. They boiled and ate animal guts, hide and tendons. Radisson wrote in a memoir that he and his brother-in-law were so hungry – they devoured the disgusting meat.

“We went so eagerly for it that our gums did bleede like one newly wounded.”

The explorers got so hungry, they even ate wood. Things were not looking good for Radisson and Groseilliers. It seemed as if they had only two options – freeze to death or starve to death.

A Quick Pierre-Espirit Radisson Flashback


Pierre-Esprit Radisson

Let’s go back in time briefly and look at Pierre-Espirit Radisson’s early days…

Radisson had a life full of adventure. He came to North America when he was just a teenager, and it didn’t take long for things to get crazy.

While on a duck-hunting trip in 1651, Radisson was allegedly captured and held captive by Mohawk Indians who were members of the Iroquois.

Eventually, the tribe adopted him. Radisson learned their language, way of life and fought alongside them in battle. He was even given an Indian name – Oninga.

But Radisson was a young man who wanted his freedom back. One day, Radisson went on a hunting trip with several Mohawks and an Algonquin Indian who was also being held captive. The two captives killed the Mohawks and ran away. But they were quickly recaptured.

The Algonquin was executed. Radisson was in the middle of being tortured when the family that had adopted him came to his rescue and convinced the other tribe members to show him mercy.

Radisson would later pull off a successful escape, and he ran away to Fort Orange, which would later become the city of Albany, NY. There he used the skills he learned living with the Iroquouis to become an interpreter, and eventually Médard Chouart des Groseilliers invited him on a fur trade exploration.

Now back to what happened to those dog-meat-eating French explorers…

How the Explorers Were Rescued

Given Radisson’s history with Native Americans – it’s interesting how he and his brother-in-law were saved from certain death. It’s also interesting how this Wisconsin Thanksgiving story somewhat mirrors our traditional U.S. Thanksgiving story.

Radisson and Groseilliers were found by a group of Indians who’d been exiled from the Ottawa tribe. A feast of wild rice, wild turkey and other fowl was prepared for them. The Ottawas gave Radisson and Groseilliers new clothes and even performed ceremonies over them – weeping tears on top of their heads.

Of course, Radisson and Grosseliers were extremely grateful. Having a belly full of turkey and rice after chewing on tree bark and boiled guts (not to mention eating your dog) would make just about anyone feel appreciative.

Radisson stood and gave a speech of thanksgiving for the rescue and the generosity of the exiled Ottawas. That is why Wisconsin historians call this account the very first Thanksgiving in our state.

Radisson and Grosseliers would spend the rest of the winter with the Ottawas and set up the first fur-trading outpost in the Chequamegon region. Later, they’d work with the English to establish Canada’s Hudson Bay Company.

So as we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving in Wisconsin – let’s remember this story and be thankful for all that we have.

While we’re at it – let’s thank the Good Lord we don’t have to eat our dogs.


  1. Interesting content for the 4th grade classes of Wisconsin as they study Wisconsin and Wisconsin history. It would make for a great Thanksgiving lesson plan!

  2. Rick Valentine says

    I don’t think I believe a word of this story!

  3. Think I may have stopped at “wood.” Wow, interesting story.

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