The first Thanksgiving: Pass the quahogs, please

November 26, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Last November, some well-meaning soul told my children that the Pilgrims ate popcorn at the first Thanksgiving, after being introduced to it by their Native American friends. That’s fascinating trivia to add to the stories and traditions of one of America’s most popular holidays. Unfortunately, like most of the other trappings of the day, it isn’t true.

As we prepare to give thanks in our own ways this week, let’s take a look at some of the myths that surround Thanksgiving.

The first Thanksgiving wasn’t really a thanksgiving at all. It was a three-day harvest celebration, probably held late in September or October, 1621, not late November. Most everything we know about it comes from a short letter written by Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow. His letter was lost for 200 years then rediscovered and published in 1841. It was the Boston printer who published the letter who called the celebration the “First Thanksgiving.”

It wasn’t the first Thanksgiving either. For the 17th century Pilgrims and others, a day of thanksgiving was a religious day of fasting. That religious element shows up in accounts of Spaniards exploring Florida and Texas back in the 1500s.

However, the association with Plimouth Plantation captured the imagination of the 19th century public, who already had a fascination with Pilgrim lore. In 1863, a persistent campaign by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale – the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – urged then President Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving Day a national holiday. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the country, under President Franklin Roosevelt, settled the date on the fourth Thursday of November.

Despite what we see in almost every picture of them, the Mayflower Pilgrims didn’t wear black and white clothing, or buckled hats and shoes. They commonly wore very colorful clothing, as was popular at that time, dyed with natural hues. Buckles were too expensive and not even in style then.

Back to the feast in 1621: The Pilgrims most likely didn’t plan to invite the native people to join them for dinner, the way we think of inviting family and friends to share Thanksgiving with us today. The local Wampanoag probably just dropped by, curious about the noise and commotion from the shooting contests and other festivities.

Not that the Pilgrims really minded. According to Winslow, “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.”

Turkey was probably not the main course. Although wild turkeys were plentiful, the little we know about that first feast says that the Wampanoag supplied five deer, and the Pilgrims supplemented the venison with waterfowl, perhaps geese or ducks.

Much of what we consider traditional Thanksgiving dinner was unknown at Plymouth. They ate seasonally, according to Jennifer Monac of the living history museum, Plimoth Plantation. At that time of the year, the harvest had been brought in, so the dinner probably included lots of vegetables such as pumpkins, squashes, carrots and peas, supplemented by fish, lobster, quahogs (hard shell clams) and nuts.

And, the Pilgrims didn’t make or eat popcorn. The native Wampanoag tribes and the settlers raised flint corn, which doesn’t pop. The best way, maybe the only way to make it edible, was to boil it and make hominy. The Pilgrims also didn’t enjoy pumpkin pie (no crust ingredients), cranberry sauce (no refined sugar), sweet potatoes (not yet part of the English diet) or much else that we will find on our Thanksgiving tables this year.

But as we do today, the Pilgrims did pause to be thankful. Of the 102 passengers who sailed on the Mayflower, only half survived the first year. They arrived on the coast of Cape Cod in December and were forced to spend more time on the ship after their 66-day journey, while some of the men went ashore to construct shelters. Most of them were sick with scurvy and pneumonia. As many as two or three a day died during the first two months on land.

After the hard winter they persevered, planting crops and continuing to construct their settlement. By harvest time, the remaining Pilgrims had built relationships with the neighboring native people and had sufficient stores for the coming winter.

In William Bradford’s account “Of Plymouth Plantation,” he wrote: “all the summer there was no want”; and of the people: “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.”

Despite their hardships, the Pilgrims were grateful and looked optimistically toward their future, so much so that, according to Bradford, “many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

Learn more about the Pilgrims

Tom Antis has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since January 2008. He and his wife, Julie, have three children. While a Thanksgiving traditionalist in many ways, he’ll leave the quahogs to the Pilgrims and look forward to turkey with all the trimmings and, of course, pumpkin pie.

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