The Story of Thanksgiving
The tradition of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving is steeped in myth and legend. Few people realize that the Pilgrims did not celebrate
Thanksgiving the next year, or any year thereafter, though some of their descendants later made a "Forefather's Day" that usually
occurred on December 21 or 22. Several Presidents, including George Washington, made one-time Thanksgiving holidays. In 1827,
Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale began lobbying several Presidents for the instatement of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but her
lobbying was unsuccessful until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday with his 1863 Thanksgiving
Today, our Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by
Congress in 1941), who changed it from Abraham Lincoln's designation as the last Thursday in November (which could occasionally
end up being the fifth Thursday and hence too close to Christmas for businesses). But the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving began at
some unknown date between September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October. The date of Thanksgiving was
probably set by Lincoln to somewhat correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on November 21,
1620 (by our modern Gregorian calendar--it was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar).
There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving: First is Edward Winslow's account, which he wrote in a letter
dated December 12, 1621. The complete letter was first published in 1622, and is chapter 6 of Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the
Pilgrims at Plymouth.
Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good,
but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun
parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special
manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help
beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the
Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we
entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor,
and upon the captain and others. 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.
The second description was written about twenty years after the fact by William Bradford in his History Of Plymouth Plantation.
Bradford's History was rediscovered in 1854 after having been taken by British looters during the Revolutionary War. Its discovery
prompted a greater American interest in the history of the Pilgrims, which eventually led to Lincoln's decision to make Thanksgiving
a holiday. It is also in this account that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition is founded.
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well
recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were
exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All
the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound
when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which
they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian
corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were
not feigned but true reports.
The following is a fairly complete list of the foods available to the Pilgrims during the three-day Thanksgiving harvest celebration. As
can be seen in the above two quotations, the only foods specifically mentioned by the Pilgrims are: "corn" (wheat, by the Pilgrims
usage of the word), Indian corn, barley, peas (if any where spared), "fowl" (Bradford says "waterfowl"), five deer, fish (namely bass
and cod), and wild turkey.
Foods Available to the Pilgrims for their 1621 Thanksgiving
FISH: cod, bass, herring, shad, bluefish, and lots of eel.
SEAFOOD: clams, lobsters, mussels, and very small quantities of oysters
BIRDS: wild turkey, goose, duck, crane, swan, partridge, and other miscellaneous waterfowl; they were also known to have
occasionally eaten eagles (which "tasted like mutton" according to Winslow in 1623.)
OTHER MEAT: venison (deer), possibly some salt pork or chicken.
GRAIN: wheat flour, Indian corn and corn meal; barley (mainly for beer-making).
FRUITS: raspberries, strawberries, grapes, plums, cherries, blueberries, gooseberries (these would have been dried, as none would
have been in season).
VEGETABLES: small quantity of peas, squashes (including pumpkins), beans
NUTS: walnuts, chestnuts, acorns, hickory nuts, ground nuts
HERBS and SEASONINGS: onions, leeks, strawberry leaves, currants, sorrel, yarrow, carvel, brooklime, liverwort, watercress, and
flax; from England they brought seeds and probably planted radishes, lettuce, carrots, onions, and cabbage. Olive oil in small
quantities may have been brought over, though the Pilgrims had to sell most of their oil and butter before sailing, in order to stay on
OTHER: maple syrup, honey; small quantities of butter, Holland cheese; and eggs.
Foods left off the menu
Ham. (The Pilgrims most likely did not have pigs with them).
Sweet Potatoes-Potatoes-Yams. (These had not yet been introduced to New England).
Corn on the cob. (Indian corn was only good for making cornmeal, not eating on the cob).
Popcorn. (Contrary to popular folklore, popcorn was probably not introduced at the 1621 Thanksgiving. Indian corn could be
half-popped, but this did not taste good.)
Cranberry sauce. (Cranberries were available, but sugar was not.)
Pumpkin Pie: (They probably made a pumpkin pudding of sorts, sweetened by honey or syrup, which would be like the filling of a
pumpkin pie, but there would be no crust or whipped topping.)
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