First Thanksgiving

November 22, 2007


Painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1914

“The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts. No Americans have been more impoverished than these who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.” ~ H.U. Westermayer

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in late 1620, they were ill-equipped for survival in their new homeland. Grain brought on the Mayflower wasn’t suited for planting in the rocky American soil. Planting techniques used in England didn’t adapt well on this side of the Atlantic either. But, perhaps most devastating, the harsh winter reduced the number of settlers by half.

Invaluable help came from Squanto, also known as Tisquantum, a Wampanoag (wam pa NO ag) American Indian, who taught the Pilgrims techniques for planting and fertilizing that were appropriate for the rugged surroundings. With some seeds provided by Squanto, the Pilgrims planted corn, wheat, and barley in the spring of 1621.

By fall, realizing that their first harvest of corn and barley would be plentiful, Governor William Bradford declared a day of thanksgiving. At the three-day feast, the 50 settlers hosted 90 Wampanoag, including their chief, Massasoit. As was the Wampanoag’s custom, they brought venison as a contribution to the meal. Not only was this festival a way to thank the Wampanoag, but it also served to boost the morale of the remaining settlers.

The next Thanksgiving celebration didn’t occur until 1623, as the Pilgrims’ harvest of 1622 was far from bountiful. In 1668, the Plymouth General Court declared that November 25th would be Thanksgiving — but this date didn’t last. The first national Thanskiving didn’t occur until 1777 and was perhaps tied more to celebrating the American’s Revolutionary War victory over the British in the Battle of Saratoga than anything else. It was George Washington who declared Thanksgiving a national holiday with a Presidential proclamation in 1789. President John Adams followed turn; Thomas Jefferson did not. Whether to have Thanksgiving or not was left up to yearly Presidential proclamations until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln finally declared the last Thursday of November a national day of Thanksgiving.

For Americans, Thanksgiving represents the combination of different traditions of giving thanks. One was a long religious tradition of religious observences where people gathered to thank God for their lives and good fortunes. Another, more ancient tradition is to celebrate the bounty of a good harvest.

Foods Available to the Pilgrims for their 1621 Thanksgiving:

FISH: cod, bass, herring, shad, bluefish, and lots of eel.

SEAFOOD: clams, lobsters, mussels, and very small quantities of oysters

BIRDS: wild turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, and other miscellaneous waterfowl; they were also known to have occasionally eaten eagles (which “tasted like mutton” according to Winslow in 1623.)

OTHER MEAT: venison (deer), possibly some salt pork or chicken.

GRAIN: wheat flour, Indian corn and corn meal; barley (mainly for beer-making).

FRUITS: raspberries, strawberries, grapes, plums, cherries, blueberries, gooseberries (these would have been dried, as none would have been in season).

VEGETABLES: small quantity of peas, squashes (including pumpkins), beans

NUTS: walnuts, chestnuts, acorns, hickory nuts, ground nuts

HERBS and SEASONINGS: onions, leeks, strawberry leaves, currants, sorrel, yarrow, carvel, brooklime, liverwort, watercress, and flax; from England they brought seeds and probably planted radishes, lettuce, carrots, onions, and cabbage. Olive oil in small quantities may have been brought over, though the Pilgrims had to sell most of their oil and butter before sailing, in order to stay on budget.

OTHER: maple syrup, honey; small quantities of butter, Holland cheese; and eggs.

There are many myths surrounding Thanksgiving. Here are nine things we do know are true about the holiday:

1. The first Thanksgiving was a harvest celebration in 1621 that lasted for three days.

2. The feast most likely occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11.

3. Approximately 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 colonists – the latter mostly women and children – participated.

4. The Wampanoag, led by Chief Massasoit, contributed at least five deer to the feast.

5. Cranberry sauce, potatoes – white or sweet – and pies were not on the menu.

6. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag communicated through Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe, who knew English because he had associated with earlier explorers.

7. Besides meals, the event included recreation and entertainment.

8. There are only two surviving descriptions of the first Thanksgiving. One is in a letter by colonist Edward Winslow. He mentions some of the food and activities. The second description was in a book written by William Bradford 20 years afterward. His account was lost for almost 100 years.

9. Abraham Lincoln named Thanksgiving an annual holiday in 1863.


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