It’s hard to believe it is already Thanksgiving week! Every November, I am confronted with inaccurate historical accounts of “the First Thanksgiving,” and this year has been no exception. It’s frustrating as a historian, especially since the “traditional” Thanksgiving story is brimming with ethnocentric ideology that reflects the history of American social thought much more than it reflects any sort of “truth” about the first Thanksgiving. The “Thanksgiving myth” has been busted by credible sources a thousand times over – in fact, correcting people about Thanksgiving has become its own Thanksgiving tradition – but an oral history that has been present in American society since the 1780s is hard to shake. Since it’s that time of year, I thought I’d reflect a little on what we know about the “real” first Thanksgiving – not in an effort to “right the narrative,” which has its place as an American folk tale, but just because the history is really interesting.
(PS, This painting is full of historical inaccuracies!)
First, the story of the Plymouth Colony (the site of the first Thanksgiving) begins long before the 17th century. Native Americans, specifically a tribe called the Wampanoag, had been living in New England for hundreds of years (long before it was called New England!). However, the Wampanoag lost thousands in an epidemic (not small pox, but something like it) that hit them in 1617-1619 – making the area around Plymouth fairly sparse of human settlement. In 1620, a small group of people from England (some by way of Holland) traveled to America, hoping to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. They overshot it a little and ended up in Cape Cod, and finally Plymouth, which seemed pretty good to them since there were relatively few Native Americans there and it had already been settled (and subsequently left) by other Europeans like John Smith (yes, that John Smith).
These 1620 settlers of Plymouth are sometimes called “Pilgrims,” though that title started in the 1840s and is connected with a Biblical verse (Hebrews 11:13-16). The Pilgrims were damn lucky, all things considered. The ones that made it through the first brutal winter (45 out of 102 people died) were able to begin permanent settlements, organize themselves into a structured society, and make a tense peace with their Wampanoag neighbors.
The settlers of Plymouth loved to feast – they did it frequently, especially in early autumn after a successful harvest. The harvest feast was an unofficial tradition in England since the English Reformation (1536). Since the autumn of 1621 would have been the first harvest for the settlers of Plymouth, it was basically their first opportunity to have their traditional autumn harvest feast. (By the way, England had its own Day of Thanksgiving – which was not the same as a harvest feast. The Pilgrims of the “first Thanksgiving” were celebrating a harvest feast, not the English Day of Thanksgiving.)
The Pilgrims’ autumn harvest of 1621 was pretty great. Of course, they owed a lot of that success to their Wampanoag neighbors, who had helped them grow crops and taught them how to survive in the brutal climate of coastal Massachusetts. Most likely, this harvest feast took place around the end of September. Historical accounts suggest that there were around 140 guests at the first harvest feast. Since there were only 53 English still surviving, that means that there were about 90 Wampanoag (!) present. The harvest festival took three days, during which the Pilgrims and Native Americans feasted and celebrated.
(PS, This painting is full of historical inaccuracies!)
There were only four women still alive in the Plymouth Colony in September 1621, so the meal was likely prepared largely by men (take note!). On the table would have been local vegetables (carrots, onions, etc.), fowl such as duck, venison (provided by the Wampanoag), fish and probably shellfish such as mussels and lobster. They might have had corn, though it would have been more of a cornmeal mush, known as samp. There would not have been cranberry sauce (though they might have had raw cranberries), potatoes of any kind, or pumpkin pie (they didn’t even have a baking oven!) – and the historical accounts don’t mention turkey at the table, though they did have turkeys in Plymouth.
The only real sources we have for what happened at “the first Thanksgiving” are Edward Winslow and William Bradford. Each of them wrote basically the same one-paragraph account of the harvest festival in their respective accounts, which you can read here. The historical roots of what we think of as our American Thanksgiving can more reasonably be traced to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Thanksgiving Proclamation. The 1940s were responsible for establishing a lot of the “spirit” of Thanksgiving that we think of today, probably due to the predominance of the nuclear family and a sort of patriotic “thankfulness” ideology popularized during and after World War II.
Thanksgiving in New York is always lovely, and I am looking forward to a few days off spent with friends and family – and maybe a Black Friday deal or two (thanks, FDR!). It doesn’t really matter how many myths are contained in the first Thanksgiving story, because it was become a part of our shared American memory. Just as most of our folk stories, it is based in truth but smothered in inaccuracy to make it easier to connect to present-day. It may be fun to bring up your new knowledge of the first Thanksgiving at the dinner table to get a conversation going about historical memory and what matters to you.
Have a happy Thanksgiving,