By Patrick J. Kiger

The True Story of Thanksgiving

This November, when we sit down to our traditional Thanksgiving day meals, some of us will pass the stuffing and cranberry sauce and imagine the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag guests doing pretty much the same thing back in 1621. But the holiday that we celebrate today is quite a bit different from the historical event that inspired it.

While relatively little is known about the first Thanksgiving, we do know this: it probably didn’t take place in November, the majority of its participants were Natives—not Pilgrims, and they didn't sit at a table. There wasn’t any pumpkin pie or cranberry sauce. If it’s any consolation, it’s possible that that they did eat turkey, though it's just as likely that venison and fish were on the menu as well. And amazingly, the meal went on for three days.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

This 1899 oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris titled “The First Thanksgiving 1621” depicts both the Plymouth Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans in historically inaccurate clothing.

According to Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, the exact date of the Pilgrims’ original Thanksgiving meal isn’t known. Philbrick thinks it actually may have occurred in late September or early October of 1621, not long after the colonists’ autumn crops—20 acres of corn, plus squash, beans, barley and peas—had been harvested. At that time of year, he also notes, Plymouth Harbor attracted a large number of migratory birds such as ducks and geese, which would have provided menu items for a celebratory meal.

That harvest was important to Plymouth’s survival, and fortunately, the colonists had good luck—with help from the Native Americans, who had tutored them on how to use fish to fertilize the ground. Edward Winslow, one of the colony’s leaders, wrote in a December 1621 letter that the colonists had been blessed by a particularly abundant harvest of corn, the native food crop upon which they had come to depend.

Additionally, according to a later account by the colony’s governor, William Bradford, the settlers had been doing pretty well with fishing that year, and had caught ample supplies of cod, bass and other fish. They’d also amassed a “great store” of wild turkeys and venison. According to Winslow, they had plenty of lobsters, eels, and mussels to eat as well, and had discovered plenty of local fruit, including strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, and “plums of three sorts.”

King Massasoit and 90 of his men showed up—outnumbering their hosts—and brought with them five deer they had hunted to contribute to the feast.

All told, the settlers were feeling pretty good about their food situation. “I make no question but men might live as contented here as in any part of the world,” Winslow wrote. That probably made it seem like a good time to hold a feast. 

By Winslow’s account, Bradford sent four of his men out to hunt fowl, “so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” In just one day, the hunters were able to kill so many birds that the colony had enough poultry to last for nearly a week.

Photograph by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

This 1926 illustration of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth displays the typical, yet inaccurate, garb we associate with the Pilgrims.

According to the Pilgrim Hall Museum, 53 of the colonists attended the celebration—including famous names such as Bradford, Winslow, Miles Standish, and John Alden. True to the modern legend, they did invite the Wampanoag as well. “And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty,” Winslow recalled. By his account, King Massasoit and 90 of his men showed up—outnumbering their hosts—and brought with them five deer they had hunted to contribute to the feast.

As Philbrick notes, the colonists didn’t call the event Thanksgiving, a term that to them would have meant strictly a day of religious devotion and prayer. (Two years later, Bradford did proclaim “a day of thanksgiveing” to pray in thanks after rains ended a ruinous summer drought that had nearly destroyed their crops.) Instead, the historian says, it more closely resembled a traditional English harvest festival, a secular sort of celebration that dated back to medieval villages’ custom of eating, drinking and playing games after the crops were in.

Also, according to Philbrick, it’s unlikely that the colonists sat down at a long table with white linen, as depicted in Victorian-era engravings. As he writes in his book, the feasters probably sat or squatted on the ground as they gathered around outdoor fire pits where venison and birds turned on wooden spits, and where pots containing vegetable and meat stews simmered. They used knives to carve away their portions and ate the food with their fingers; forks didn’t arrive in Plymouth until late in the 1600s.

They used knives to carve away their portions and ate the food with their fingers; forks didn’t arrive in Plymouth until late in the 1600s.

There’s a good chance that turkey was on the menu, since according to Bradford, there was a good supply of them in the area. But as this National Geographic news article notes, pumpkin pie was categorically not, since the ingredients to make crust wouldn’t have been available. Ditto for cranberry sauce. The latter requires sugar, which at the time was an expensive item for the colonists.

You may be wondering where our familiar Pilgrim Thanksgiving myth started. James W. Baker, author of Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, points to Alexander Young, author of an 1841 book about the Pilgrims, which referenced Winslow’s letter mentioning the harvest feast. Young added a footnote describing the event as “the first Thanksgiving,” and that idea apparently resonated with Americans. Today, the image of the Pilgrims in their buckled hats sitting down at the table to a sumptuous dinner with their Native American friends is a tradition imprinted in our minds, as surely as football and the Macy’s Day parade.

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