Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Lawrence’s first Thanksgiving

Seated at center, with white hair and black skirt, is Louise Gates Roberts Rouselaux, photographed with a group of early Lawrence settlers who had survived an 1856 raid on Lawrence as well as Quantrill's Raid in 1863. Reclining at lower right is Hugh 'Kansas Hermit' Cameron.

Sure, my Thanksgiving plate this week will include all the standard items: six or seven pounds of turkey, a layer of mashed potatoes, a generous amount of the manmade marvel known as green-bean casserole, and sideboards to hold all the gravy.

I know, standard stuff. But this year, I may add a twist: doughnuts.

Why? Well, that question should be rhetorical because there are so many good answers. But I’ll give you a specific one: Doughnuts saved Lawrence’s first Thanksgiving.

If you don’t believe me, I have it right here in print. One hundred years ago an article appeared in the Nov. 26 edition of the Lawrence Daily Journal-World. It was about Lawrence’s first Thanksgiving, and the writer found quite a source: the woman who cooked the meal.

According to the article, the woman’s name was Mrs. Gates. With a little help from local historian extraordinaire Katie Armitage, I was able to confirm her full name was actually Louise Gates, and she was one of the first women to live in Lawrence. Records indicate she was part of the second party of settlers, arriving in September 1854. Members of the first party were all men.

“She was a fine New England woman, and apparently the pioneer spirit really kicked in,” says Armitage, who is the author of the book “Lawrence: Survivors of Quantrill’s Raid.”

Apparently it did. The newspaper article talks of how when Mr. Gates would take a break from building the couple’s log cabin home, Mrs. Gates would set aside their daughter, Fanny, pick up the saw in his absence and “saw back and forth through the log with all my feeble strength.”

“I was growing stronger every day in the splendid Kansas air,” she said, which may have just been her way of saying her husband was taking too many breaks. (I don’t know. I’ve grown sensitive to such remarks.)

Regardless, she told the author that she had a simple reason for letting no minute go to waste: “From the very first it had been my great ambition to get the cabin done in time for a real New England Thanksgiving dinner.”

For awhile, it was touch and go on whether the cabin would be done in time. For a good period of time, Mrs. Gates lived in what was called a “hay tent,” which I think was because it was a tent made out of thatched hay, (but it also may be because men outnumbered woman by about seven to one and the women were constantly having to yell “Hey, pick up your dirty socks.)

The hay tent became the first boarding house and also was a site for the Sunday services of Plymouth Congregational Church, Mrs. Gates told the newspaper. She, her husband and their daughter eventually moved to a smaller tent on their farm and future cabin site, which Armitage believes was near where the Hallmark Cards plant is located today.

“It was fascinating to me to stand at the tent door looking westward and feel that we were on the very edge of civilization,” Mrs Gates said. “The country to the west of us, until one reached the Pacific Coast settlements, was inhabited only by trappers, Indians and buffalo.”

Indeed, the cabin would be done by Thanksgiving, and Mrs. Gates began cooking right away. Pans of doughnuts were among the first items she baked, and it was a good thing too. She tells how she had a pan of the “brown beauties” cooling when a crowd of “rough men on horseback” came to the property. They “flourished revolvers and bowie knives” and ordered the family to leave the property. The men said they were the rightful owners of the land. Mrs. Gates said she was in a “panic of fear” because she had heard of such claim jumpers, and she saw her husband searching for his loaded gun.

“Then an inspiration came to me,” she said. “I caught up my pan of doughnuts, and, with my most gracious manner, passed it to the men with an invitation to help themselves. They needed no second invitation. Revolvers and bowie knives were put back in their cases, and very soon the empty pan was passed back to me with a polite, ‘thank you, madame.”

The men left peacefully. Doughnuts had saved the day.

While doughnuts made an appearance, turkey did not, near as I can tell. Mrs. Gates said her husband successfully shot a prairie chicken that she used to make a chicken pie. Her husband also rode to the nearby California Trail and successfully negotiated with a team of cowboys for one of the herd’s lame animals.

By Thanksgiving day, the cabin was ready, and a large board that had been in the couple’s wagon was brought in and mounted on tree stumps to form a dining room table. Logs were brought in for benches. The guests included Charles Robinson, who later would become the first governor of Kansas; two young newspaper correspondents who had been sent to Lawrence from the New York Herald and the New York Tribune; Mr. and Mrs. Lum, who were fine New England abolitionists; and a few others.

There were many more Thanksgivings for Mrs. Gates. She lived to the age of 91 and died in 1915. But there perhaps was not a Thanksgiving any happier than that first one for Mrs. Gates. Her husband, Levi Gates, died in Quantrill’s raid when he heard the early-morning shots and ran into town with his loaded gun. Mrs. Gates the following year married Civil War veteran William Y. Roberts, but he died five years later, research by Armitage found. She then married a bit of a mysterious fellow: a French doctor by the name of J.E. Rouselaux. But about nine years later, Rouselaux just disappeared. (I theorize the Frenchman was sent out to find the French fried onions for the casserole, and just never made his way back.)

His disappearance complicated Mrs. Gates’ life considerably. She never could prove that Rouselaux was dead, so she was not eligible to receive the Civil War widow’s pension that she otherwise would have been entitled to due to the death of her second husband, who was a colonel in the U.S. army.

None other than famed Lawrence businessman J.D. Bowersock tried to come to Mrs. Gates’ aid. By this time Bowersock was a U.S. Congressman, and he tried to have a special bill passed in Congress to provide a pension to Mrs. Gates. The bill failed, but the press coverage caught the attention of an East Coast woman, Armitage’s research shows. It was Mrs. Gates’ granddaughter. Mrs. Gates’ daughter, Fanny, had long since married, moved away, and then died in childbirth. Armitage assumes Mrs. Gates did not have much contact with the grandchild. But she soon would.

The granddaughter had married a man who had done quite well for himself. He supposedly had invented the formula for the breakfast cereal Cream of Wheat. For the rest of Mrs. Gates’ life he would send her $50 a month.

Cream of Wheat had saved the day.

Doughnuts, Cream of Wheat and Thanksgiving are all fun to think about. But it also seems appropriate to think about what Mrs. Gates helped save. Lawrence was a far different place on Thanksgiving of 1854. History books are filled with stories of towns that once existed and then just disappeared like a French doctor.

“Lawrence could have been one of those towns on many occasions,” Armitage says.

There probably are several reasons why Lawrence did not just disappear during the hard times. The community really is unique in that it was founded on the beautiful but dangerous idea that slavery should be abolished. Perhaps the good karma built up from that belief helped us survive.

But surely women like Mrs. Gates did too. Standing on the edge of civilization, her thoughts were consumed with hosting a proper Thanksgiving dinner. I suspect it wasn’t the food that motivated her, but rather the gathering.

Hopefully we all have much to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving. And one of them should be that the place Mrs. Gates called home didn’t just remain a town but became a community where neighbors gather, break bread and share in thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving, and pass the doughnuts. You can keep the Cream of Wheat.