All Over The Map: Thanksgiving Island Mystery solved?

Nov 27, 2021, 8:24 AM | Updated: 12:48 pm
Thanksgiving Island...
An aerial image of Thanksgiving Island, which has been completely underwater since the late 1960s, from 1952. (Public domain.)
(Public domain.)

“The Mystery of Thanksgiving Island” – a ‘cold case’ about the origins of that name first brought to the attention of KIRO Radio listeners and MyNorthwest readers earlier this month – may just have been cracked wide open by one of those KIRO Radio listeners.

Thanksgiving Island is in the Columbia River near Klickitat County in Eastern Washington. It’s upriver from the John Day Dam, and it’s officially part of Oregon. It’s also officially completely underwater, and has been since the dam began creating a huge reservoir more than 50 years ago.

I exhausted all my skills and sources last week in trying to track down the origin story for the name “Thanksgiving Island.” I checked everywhere and spoke or traded emails with several experts, but I couldn’t find anything. On Seattle’s Morning News on Friday, Nov. 19, I put out the call for help solving the mystery, and offered a frozen turkey as a prize.

On Thanksgiving Eve, I spoke with from a man from Olympia named Emmett O’Connell who does a lot of research and writing about Northwest history. He found a newspaper clipping from The Oregonian from April 1968 – when that part of the Columbia was starting to fill with water behind the John Day Dam — that offers up an anecdote about the origins of the “Thanksgiving Island” name that seems pretty plausible to me.

“A steamboat had landed there on Thanksgiving Day and that’s where everything sort of clicked into place for me because that stretch of the Columbia had been sort of like renamed and named different during different eras, depending on who is there. Like trappers had gone up and named features, and then the steamboat era was the next one, and they named features, too,” O’Connell told KIRO Radio by phone, paraphrasing (and then speculating on) a piece in the April 14, 1968, Oregonian called “High-Lift Shiplock On Columbia River To Begin Service This Week When Water Creates Pool At John Day Dam.”

Timing – and the rise of Thanksgiving as a holiday in the late 19th century – are also key to solving the mystery, O’Connell says.

“It was also during the steamboat era” – of the 1860s or the 1870s – “that Thanksgiving as a day was kind of coming into focus,” O’Connell said. “So they would have a concept of when an actual Thanksgiving Day was, so they could say ‘Today’s Thanksgiving. This is when we landed on this island.’”

KIRO Radio has already forwarded word of O’Connell’s find to “Oregon Geographic Names” author Mary MacArthur, who’s working on the next edition of the landmark book pioneered a century ago by her grandfather and then carried on by her father.

O’Connell acknowledges that the Oregonian clipping doesn’t offer any proof or name a source for its claims. He says there might be more details or confirmation yet to be uncovered, perhaps in the archives of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, the 19th century firm that ran trains and steamboats in Oregon and on the Columbia River. O’Connell’s blog post about solving the mystery also takes a deep – and troubling – dive into the history of the island. KIRO Radio will have more on that part of the story in the near future.

Either way, I will be sending Emmett O’Connell a turkey for solving the mystery, and then sending a reimbursement request to KIRO Radio management as my way of saying, “Happy Thanksgiving Island!”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: Thanksgiving Island Mystery solved?