What Actually Happened at the First Thanksgiving?


WRITTEN BY: Bella Coyne


Thanksgiving: that awkward time of year between Halloween and Christmas—full of school plays, football games, and family days. Often, when we think of Thanksgiving, our minds travel over the history and onto the pumpkin pie. The truth is, the first Thanksgiving is a fascinating topic! When studying that historic day in 1621, there are certainly many details that seem to have been lost in translation. For example: did they really eat turkey? How many attended the meal? And did the Pilgrims really wear hats made out of construction paper and Scotch tape?


In today’s blog, we’ll talk about the main event of Thanksgiving: the meal. What did it look like, and how does it differ from our “traditional” Thanksgiving feast of today?


Fun fact: the first Thanksgiving wasn’t just a fancy meal. It was a celebration-of-harvest festival that lasted for three days! And much of our knowledge of the festival comes from the writings of pilgrim Edward Winslow, an attendee of the celebration. While history didn’t gift us a laminated copy of the Thanksgiving menu, Winslow left us plenty of eye witness information about what may have been served. Let’s explore some of his writing to find out the background of the celebration and what the menu could have been.


“…our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week,” writes Winslow.


That paragraph alone proves a Mayflower-load of information. When he speaks of gathering the fruits of our labors, he is referring to the Pilgrims’ first successful harvest since traveling to the New World. As history tells us, the first year of the Pilgrims’ life in the colonies was full of struggles. The winter, more frigid and much deadlier than expected, took the lives of nearly half the colonists; consequently, only fifty or so survived to attend the Thanksgiving feasts. Miraculously, with the help of knowledgeable Native Americans (including the famous Squanto), the Pilgrims worked hard to cultivate enough crops to sustain their new lives. So when the harvest of November 1621 arrived, there was certainly cause to celebrate.


As for the fowling bit, he’s referring to a party of men that were sent to hunt enough to feed the Company. In New England, there were many options for fowl-hunting, such as geese, ducks, swans, and yes, turkey! Notice that he doesn’t specifically mention turkey— however, the leader of the colonists, William Bradford, does! In his famous writing on the founding of the Plymouth Colony, he states: “…there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they [the hunting party] took many, besides venison, etc.” And, as well as fowl and venison, other accounts tell us of the plentiful seafood in the surrounding area, such as lobster, oysters, and a wide variety of fish.


But how was the food prepared? And what was it served with? Our modern Thanksgiving meal tends to consist of a roasted turkey, cranberry sauce, cornbread, and pumpkin pie. But the Pilgrims and Native American tribes didn’t have access to convection ovens or turkey basters. Historians speculate that the turkey and fish would have been prepared with Native American spices, stuffed with berries, and roasted on a spit over the fire. The venison may have been used in a stew with local onions, turnips, and corn. However, though mashed potatoes seem to be a popular turkey-sidekick, there is no record of them at that first feast at all. While potatoes were first brought to Europe in the 1500’s, they would have been neither popular with the colonists, nor accessible enough in the Plymouth area.


Unfortunately, sweet cranberry sauce wouldn’t have made an appearance on the Thanksgiving table. The limited supply of sugar that the Pilgrims brought with them would have been nearly gone by then, so using sugar to sweeten and thicken a sauce wasn’t an option. Cranberries weren’t even used in garnishes or sauces until much later—in fact, cranberry sauce wasn’t commercially sold until 1912!


Corn, however, would have almost certainly been served. Grown plentifully by both the experienced Native Americans and the newbie-Pilgrims, it was often pounded into meal and cooked with molasses into a sweet porridge.


Finally, let’s examine the last big staple of the “traditional” Thanksgiving meal: pumpkin pie. As I mentioned earlier, sugar would have been in short supply, as well as modern-day conveniences such as flour and baking soda. But accounts of early English settlers along with culinary historians suggest that the Pilgrims may have made their own version of the popular pumpkin dessert. According to those sources, the Pilgrims may have hollowed out the insides of pumpkins and gourds, filled them with milk, honey, and spices, and roasted them to create a savory and sweet custard-like treat. (And I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds absolutely delicious. Move over, Kroger pumpkin pie. There’s a new sheriff in town.)


As this non-traditional Thanksgiving of 2020 draws closer, I invite you to reflect on how your own Thanksgiving compares to the 399-year-old original. Are your menus similar? How about the company? According to Edward Winslow’s writing, there were nearly 100 neighboring Native Americans present at the celebration, along with around 50 Pilgrims.


I imagine the first Thanksgiving meal was observed with equal parts gratefulness and fear, joy, and grief. How will you observe yours?


The Native American culture, so essential to the survival of the Pilgrims, has a powerful story of its own. To find out about the leaders of their culture, how the Americans treated them, and how they’ve impacted our world today, we invite you to watch Season 2, Episode 6 of Reconnecting Roots: “Native Americans: An Uncommon History”— or stream for free, anytime, anywhere, at www.pbs.org/show/reconnectingroots.


All of us here at Reconnecting Roots wish you a joyful Thanksgiving. Stay safe!


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