The Real First Thanksgiving

I’ve published this off and on over the years – a hopefully accurate historical description of the first Thanksgiving. For those of you who haven’t read it, I hope you enjoy it.

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.

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

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 was pneumonia and scurvy. 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 five 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; he 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 Wampanoag tribal confederation, 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 sachem 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 Mayflower finally 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=Patuxet

The Pilgrims had brought no livestock with them. The first cattle — three cows and a bull — did not arrive in Massachusetts until 1623 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 dished, 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 squash 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 in my book, The Last Pilgrim..

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 for which the Pilgrims gave so much and to which the Wampanoags contributed so much, ensuring their survival.



40 thoughts on “The Real First Thanksgiving”

  1. Reblogged this on Rereading Jane Eyre and commented:
    As promised, the second instalment of Noelle Granger’s informative and entertaining posts about Thanksgiving. This time she’s she’s sharing her knowledge about the Pilgrims ‘ arrival and their First Thanksgiving.

  2. Another cracking good post. I’m surprised the pilgrims didnt bring seeds stocks of thngs like wheat and barley with them, but I vaguely remember they left in a hurry, and of course the seeds may have been ground up for bread during the crossing.
    A great post, thanks so much!
    Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

  3. Amazing to think how tastes change over time and things we see as delicacies now they wouldn’t even look at. I remember reading about Squanto (and studying what has become known as the Squanto effect)…One has to wonder how different things could have been… Great post.

    1. Thanks, Sylvia. i get very frustrated at what I read in newspapers and books about the Pilgrims and their harvest celebrations. Especially when Pilgrims and Puritans are confused!

  4. Fascinating, Noelle. I’m glad you tried a harvest meal of the time and found it tasty and filling. I’d love to try that. And how interesting that the Pilgrims didn’t eat much fish and fed their clams and mussels to the pigs. Lol. How times change. Thanks for the post and for all the research!

  5. Ah, forgot the lobster this year! Fascinating to imagine the gaps in between the bits of documentation. All the sickness and hardships. All the loss of Native knowledge.

    1. This was a clarification of the peace treaty between the Wampanoags (Pokanokets) and the Pilgrims, which people don’ty know about or overlook, trying to seek out conflict between them.

    1. I imagine the Pilgrims looked rather rich to their native neighbors, especially with tools, which were being stolen on a regular basis! The Pilgrims hid their losses over the winter and early spring by burying the bodies on what is now Cole’s Hill, covering over the graves and sowing grass so their numbers wouldn’t be known. There is a sarcophagus on Cole’s Hill listing all the souls buried there – a few bones were discovered in the 1800s and eventually dated (later) to the 17th century, but most of the remains were long gone by then,

  6. A very informative post, Noelle. I had read about some of their experiences, but you’ve summarised it very well. Good luck in all your projects.

  7. Absolutely fascinating information. Thank you for this. For the second time we visited the New England states in October including Mass and Maine, it’s so beautiful in both. We were unsure if we should visit Plymouth, but it didn’t sound like there was much of anything there. I thought they would have a museum and the Plymouth Rock, but it sounds very small.

    1. There is the Rock, of course, but the place to go is Plymouth Pawtuxet, a living history museum that is a reconstruction of the Pilgrim’s village circa 1627 and also a Narragansett Indian encampment. I’ve been many times in the writing of my book The Last Pilgrim and always come away with a new sense of history.

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