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?

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Everyone knows about the Pilgrims and the Indians, right? How the two groups gathered peacefully in Plymouth, Mass., to feast on juicy turkeys and colorful pumpkin pies.

The trouble is, almost everything we've been taught about the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is a myth. The holiday has two distinct histories - the actual one and a romanticized portrayal.

Today, Americans celebrate a holiday based largely on the latter, whose details of turkey and cranberry sauce decorating one long table stem from the creative musings of a magazine editor in the mid-1800s.

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The true history has been a difficult one to uncover. Staff at Plimoth Plantation, which occupies several acres on the outskirts of the city of Plymouth, just north of Cape Cod, have been in the vanguard of researching the event. But a big obstacle remains: Everything historians know today is based on two passages written by colonists.

Participants' accounts

In a letter to a friend, dated December 1621, Edward Winslow wrote: "Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more 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, among other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 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."

Twenty years later, William Bradford wrote a book that provides a few more hints as to what might have been on that first Thanksgiving table. But his book was stolen by British looters during the Revolutionary War and therefore didn't have much influence on how Thanksgiving was celebrated until it turned up many years later.

No one is certain whether the Wampanoag and the colonists regularly sat together and shared their food, or if the three-day "thanksgiving" feast Mr. Winslow recorded for posterity was a one-time event.

In the culture of the Wampanoag Indians, who inhabited the area around Cape Cod, "thanksgiving" was an everyday activity.

"We as native people [traditionally] have thanksgivings as a daily, ongoing thing," says Linda Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag program at Plimoth Plantation. "Every time anybody went hunting or fishing or picked a plant, they would offer a prayer or acknowledgment."

But for the 52 colonists - who had experienced a year of disease, hunger, and diminishing hopes - their bountiful harvest was cause for a special celebration to give thanks.

"Neither the English people nor the native people in 1621 knew they were having the first Thanksgiving," Ms. Coombs says. No one knew that the details would interest coming generations.

"We're not sure why Massasoit and the 90 men ended up coming to Plimoth," Coombs says. "There's an assumption that they were invited, but nowhere in the passage does it say they were. And the idea that they sat down and lived happily ever after is, well, untrue. The relationship between the English and the Wampanoag was very complex."

Since they did not speak the same language, the extent to which the colonists and Indians intermingled remains a mystery. But a few details of that first Thanksgiving are certain, says Kathleen Curtin, food historian at the Plimoth Plantation.

What was on the menu?

First, wild turkey was never mentioned in Winslow's account. It is probable that the large amounts of "fowl" brought back by four hunters were seasonal waterfowl such as duck or geese.

And if cranberries were served, they would have been used for their tartness or color, not the sweet sauce or relish so common today. In fact, it would be 50 more years before berries were boiled with sugar and used as an accompaniment to meat.

Potatoes weren't part of the feast, either. Neither the sweet potato nor the white potato was yet available to colonists.

The presence of pumpkin pie appears to be a myth, too. The group may have eaten pumpkins and other squashes native to New England, but it is unlikely that they had the ingredients for pie crust - butter and wheat flour. Even if they had possessed butter and flour, the colonists hadn't yet built an oven for baking.

"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.

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."

A native view

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.

But Mr. Mills has another name and another job. As Flying Eagle, he is the chief of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.

Still, he doesn't see himself as caught between two cultures. Instead, he embraces both.

With equal relish, Mills will spend an afternoon walking in peaceful silence, as his ancestors did, or an evening listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

He has always spent a lot of time thinking about the history of his people, however, and the confusion about what really happened back in 1621.

"Things have changed so much," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Even Thanksgiving has changed. Young people today don't remember what it was like 50 or 100 years ago.

"Then, we picked our own cranberries from our own cranberry bogs, and we caught rabbits and hung them outside our garage doors."

More recently, Coombs remembers that as she was growing up, her family celebrated the holiday as most other Americans did. She went to her grandfather's house, ate a turkey dinner, and watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television. It wasn't until she was in college that she learned her ancestors had observed Thanksgiving in a different manner.

It is not just the eating, but the gathering together, preparing, and thanking that matters, Mills says. "The role of food is important, but it's gotten to the point where we become gluttons.... We could spend a lot more time really thinking about what's going on in our world and giving more thanks."

Whose history is it?

Mills points to the Plymouth Rock on the town's waterfront as an example of differing views. The rock, first placed in 1774, is a monument to the landing of the Mayflower, the ship that brought the Pilgrims to Massachusetts 382 years ago.

"They're saying this is 'America's hometown,' that this is the rock [the colonists] stepped on," Mills says. "I'm not against that, and it's nice to have the rock, but don't try to make it true when it's really a symbol, a mythology."

He's also disturbed by the fact that many people still don't know or seem quick to dismiss the native side of the story.

"When I talk about Thanksgiving, [some people think] it happened too long ago to matter," Mills says. "But when they talk about it, well, it's history."

Still, the Wampanoag now have many more opportunities to contribute to historical accounts of the region, offering insight into the traditions of their people that have been passed down orally through the generations.

"The two groups are working very well together in recent years," Mills says. "And those connections turn into a circle. No matter how small, how minor, they all contribute to the human beings that we are."

In late 1621, remembering the first Thanksgiving gathering, Edward Winslow expressed a sentiment similar to Mills's call for sharing and giving thanks:"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."

What historians do know about Thanksgiving

There are many myths surrounding Thanksgiving. Here are nine things we do know are true about the holiday.

1. The first Thanksgiving was a harvest celebration in 1621 that lasted for three days.

2. The feast most likely occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11.

3. Approximately 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 colonists - the latter mostly women and children - participated.

4. The Wampanoag, led by Chief Massasoit, contributed at least five deer to the feast.

5. Cranberry sauce, potatoes - white or sweet - and pies were not on the menu.

6. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag communicated through Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe, who knew English because he had associated with earlier explorers.

7. Besides meals, the event included recreation and entertainment.

8. There are only two surviving descriptions of the first Thanksgiving. One is in a letter by colonist Edward Winslow. He mentions some of the food and activities. The second description was in a book written by William Bradford 20 years afterward. His account was lost for almost 100 years.

9. Abraham Lincoln named Thanksgiving an annual holiday in 1863.

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