The Real First Thanksgiving

I am making a habit of posting this every year. It seems appropriate.

Having grown up in Plymouth and worked as a tour guide at Plimoth Plantation, the Pilgrims are near to my heart.


Much has been written about the first Thanksgiving which took place at Plimoth Colony. Here is some information that is probably closer to the truth. As usual, click on the pictures.

First Thanksgiving I                 The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

The voyage from Plymouth, England, had taken 65 days. Once the decision to settle on the shores of the harbor of what is now Plymouth, MA, the Pilgrims faced a daunting future:they had no houses, no stored goods, no knowledge of the country they faced, nor any knowledge of its inhabitants besides wild stories of cannibals. And the season was winter, harsh and cruel. A common house that had been built to house some of the Pilgrims burned on January 14, 1621, and those who had lived there had to return to the Mayflower for shelter.

Pilgrims going to church                  Pilgrims going to church (1867) by George Henry Boughton, New York Public Library

Not long afterward, the sickness swept through both the colonists and the crew of the Mayflower. It is knot know what this sickness was, although it is thought it might have been pneumonia. At one point, only seven of the entire population were well enough to care for the remaining 150, fetching wood for fires, making food, bathing and dressing the sick. When the sickness was over, only 12 of 26 men with families, 4 of the 12 single men and boys, and all but a few of the women survived.

Despite their reduced numbers, they soon set about laying out First Street (Leyden Street) and setting the foundations for a fort at the top of the street. The colonist noticed Native Americans near their settlement in mid-February, and the two groups final met on Friday, March 16th.
Squanto and MassasoitThis is the famous encounter that involved Samoset, an Abenaki Sagamore from what is now Maine, when he and another man entered the developing village and said “Welcome, Englishmen.” Samoset had learned English from the English fishermen who crossed the North Atlantic each year to fish for cod, some of whom remained on small islands off the coast of Maine. He told the Pilgrims of a great plague which had killed the Patuxet people who had previously lived on that spot: indeed, the Pilgrims had found cleared farmland when they disembarked.

The local native Americans, the Wampanoags, were very distrustful of the English because some had been kidnapped and sold into slavery by Thomas Hunt, an English captain who had visited the area a few years before.

Samoset returned with another Native American, Squanto, on March 22nd; Squanto was one of the men taken by Hunt, had been sold as a slave in Spain, escaped to London and returned to American as a guide. He became the colony’s interpreter and worked on their behalf in their interactions with the Wampanoags. As a result, the regional leader of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, visited the Pilgrims. There was an exchange of gifts, and a treaty was signed that lasted for over 50 years. Massasoit’s purpose in aligning with the Pilgrims was to provide protection for his tribe, which had been decimated by disease, from surrounding tribes.

It was his suggestion that the fields south of the brook be turned by hand and crops of wheat, barley, Indian corn and peas were planted in early April. Work continued on the houses, and the little Mayflower left the colony to return to England on April 5th.

Learning to plant cornThe first Thanksgiving was not really a thanksgiving but instead a traditional English harvest celebration to which the colonists invited Massasoit and members of the Wampanoag. It is generally thought to have occurred in November of 1621, but might have been at the end of the summer.

First Thanksgiving II                                 The First Thanksgiving, Jenny Augusta Brownscombe 1914

I have eaten a traditional Pilgrim meal, and I can vouch for the fact that the food was very tasty and filling. There are no records of exact fare of this harvest meal, but Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow noted that the colony’s governor, William Bradford, sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for what was to be a three-day event. Wild turkeys were plentiful in the area and a common food source for both English settlers and Native Americans. But it is just as likely that ducks, geese and swans, which frequently graced Pilgrim tables, were also on the menu. Both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims occasionally stuffed birds and fish, typically using herbs, onions or nuts to add extra flavor. Deer were also killed and roasted venison would have been on the menu.

Turkey for ThanksgivingStrangely, in a land where the shoreline and coastal rivers were teeming with salmon, cod, flounder, shad, haddock, and sea bass, the Pilgrims were not huge fish-eaters. From Edward Winslow, we also know the Pilgrims ate lobster, which were in such abundance they could be collected by the bushels from tidal pools. But familiarity soon bred contempt, and the Pilgrims came to regard them as food for the poor. They also collected and ate eels, mussels and clams but later, with the arrival of livestock, fed the mussels and clams to their pigs.

First Thanksgiving IV                                   A Re-enactment of the First Thanksgiving at Plimoth Plantation

The Pilgrims had brought no livestock with them. The first cattle — three cows and a bull — did not arrive in Massachusetts until 1624m so in 1621 they were without butter, cheese, milk, and cream.

There is no indication that cranberries were served at the feast, but they did occur in Wampanoag dishes, adding tartness. Remember that it is unlikely there was any sugar in the Plimoth Colony, although honey might have been available. However, there were plentiful wild gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries.

Forget baked or mashed potatoes. Potatoes, sweet or white, would have been unknown at the time, but the Wamanoag ate a variety of other root vegetables: Jerusalem artichokes, groundnuts, wild onions, Indian turnip and water lily.  What about pumpkin? Was it on the menu? Pumpkins and squashes were native to New England, and while the American varieties were new to the Pilgrims, they were hardly exotic. However, the fledgling colony didn’t have the butter and wheat flour for making piecrust.

What they did have is corn, a colorful, hard corn that the Pilgrims referred to as Indian corn. It was a staple for the Wampanoag and quickly become a fixture in Pilgrim cooking pots. “Our Indian corn,” wrote Edward Winslow,” even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meat as rice.” In other words, the Pilgrim quickly learned to adapt traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes and bread to flour made with the native corn.

Indian CornThe Pilgrims ate with spoons and knives but forks were unknown, so they also used their fingers a lot.

Of course no one knows exactly what it was like to be living in the Plimoth Colony in 1621, but I am lucky to have come as close as possible to the history and have let my imagination do the rest.

May everyone, no matter their food preference, have a wonderful and warm Thanksgiving, and be mindful of all the blessings bestowed on us as Americans, blessings and freedom for which the Pilgrims sacrificed with their lives.



34 thoughts on “The Real First Thanksgiving”

  1. Happy Thanksgiving, Noelle – and thanks for the fascinating history. It’s Thursday already here in New Zealand – so (not that the country celebrates it per se) it is Thanksgiving already.

    1. Thank you, Bruce! When did you live in NC and where? Happy Thanksgiving to you, too! A writing buddy of mine is vacationing in NZ right now, and I’m hoping she can find some turkey!

      1. She’s not going to find much turkey – although some frozen ones are appearing in the shops at extravagant prices. I was in NC 2001-2003. I lived at Leicester, just out of Asheville, on a road (would you believe) called South Turkey Creek Road. The place was owned by the family of Lamar Bascom Lunsford – the folk music expert – and I lived surrounded by his 5 wonderful daughters (in their 80s and 90s!) and their children. They would take us to the folk music festivals! The rest of the neighboring folk were known as “the gentle rednecks”!

    2. What a great place to live in NC – up in the mountains and surrounded by musicians! I go to the Blue Ridge Folk Arts Festival mainly for the music! I am not surprised by your address because we live on Turkey Farm Road! Many years ago there was a turkey farm on this road, which was dirt when we moved here!

  2. This is a great write-up, read like a historical novel…covering a period of time that I think fascinates most Americans. The hardship of the Pilgrims and pioneers of those days is incredible to think about (as I sit in a coffee shop drinking a cafe latte…thinking about what to order on Wish you a great holiday season Noelle.

    1. Thank you! And best wished for the holidays back to you! I did a guest post this week for BookClubMom on the relationships between Pilgrim husbands and wives, if you are interested. As I research for a possible historical novel about the Pilgrims, there will be more!

  3. Thanks for the history lesson. Noelle. I remembered hearing somewhere about lobsters being food for the poor and that in early prisons lobsters were fed to the prisoners because they were so plentiful. Times change. Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. You’re most welcome! There’s a guest post on Barb Vitelli’s blog about the husband-wife relationships in Pilgrim society you might enjoy; There’s problems with lobsters and prisoners even more recent: the prisoners at the Maine State Prison went on strike because of too many meals of lobster! I must admit the reason I like lobster so much is that I don’t get to have it very often! We lobstered out in Maine this summer!

  4. Thank You for telling us the Origin of “Thanksgiving”.
    I truly admire our natives, who travelled to distant lands to set up their own house in a colony of similar people.

    1. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it! I am deep into my turkey day cooking – cranberry/orange/apple relish, turnips, my great great grandmother’s meat stuffing, squash, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole,gravy, and a32 pound turkey!

    1. I think it could be a day of pride for GB since the east coast of North America was settled largely by people from there. There is a project to build another Mayflower going on in Norwich right now, to sail to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 2020.

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