The first Thanksgiving
In the fall of 1621, 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 English colonists gathered for a three-day harvest feast. How did Americans get from that celebration to the Thanksgiving 'traditions' we observe today?
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"While we have been able to work out which modern dishes were not available in 1621, just what was served is a tougher nut to crack," Ms. Curtin says.Skip to next paragraph
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A couple of guesses can be made from other passages in Winslow's correspondence about the general diet at the time: lobsters, mussels, "sallet herbs," white and red grapes, black and red plums, and flint corn.
"We have only one documented harvest feast that occurred between the cultures," Curtin points out. "You don't hear about [any other] harvests occurring between them. I assume that they did on some level, but it's fascinating that it is just that one source, one sentence in one letter. I wonder what else is there that someone just didn't jot down, and we now know nothing about."
Until the early 1800s, Thanksgiving was considered to be a regional holiday celebrated solemnly through fasting and quiet reflection.
But the 19th century had its own Martha Stewart, and it didn't take her long to turn New England fasting into national feasting. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular Godey's Lady's Book, stumbled upon Winslow's passage and refused to let the historic day fade from the minds - or tables - of Americans. This established trendsetter filled her magazine with recipes and editorials about Thanksgiving.
It was also about this time - in 1854, to be exact - that Bradford's history book of Plymouth Plantation resurfaced. The book increased interest in the Pilgrims, and Mrs. Hale and others latched onto the fact he mentioned that the colonists had killed wild turkeys during the autumn.
In her magazine Hale wrote appealing articles about roasted turkeys, savory stuffing, and pumpkin pies - all the foods that today's holiday meals are likely to contain.
In the process, she created holiday "traditions" that share few similarities with the original feast in 1621.
In 1858, Hale petitioned the president of the United States to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. She wrote: "Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand Thanksgiving holiday of our nation, when the noise and tumult of worldliness may be exchanged for the length of the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart."
Five years later, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."
"[Hale's] depiction is wrong much more often than it's right," says Nancy Brennan, president of Plimoth Plantation. "When this idea [of the first Thanksgiving] caught on, it became a big, popular subject for prints and books and paintings, all of which used whatever people could gather about what the environment might have been like in 1621."
With little mention of the native population, the Wampanoag presence was virtually relegated to the background, and the Pilgrim presence promoted to the fore.
"The Wampanoag, we sometimes forget, were the majority population," Ms. Brennan says. "In the 19th and 20th centuries, Thanksgiving was really a tool for Americanization amid the great influx of immigration. It was supposed to bind this diverse population into one union."
And so, over the centuries, that first Thanksgiving took on a shape of mythological proportions. But how Americans celebrate today has little to do with the convergence of two different populations across an enormous cultural divide.
One man who would like people to know more about the actual Thanksgiving is descended from the Wampanoag Indians who were such an essential part of the first Thanksgiving celebration.
He steps out onto the porch in front of the Flume restaurant in Plymouth and looks south. He lifts his face - marked by deep lines and dark, heavy eyes - toward the open sky.
"I'm looking down the river here now, and the sun is bright, and the tide is high, and the wind is blowing," he says. "My people would say that is the spirit coming from the southwest, where the corn and beans and squash come from. So we thank the spirit world - the fire, the moon, the sky, the sun, the earth."
This man's name is Earl Mills Sr., and he is a retired high school teacher and athletic director, the author of two books, and the owner of the restaurant.