By Rich Niccum, Education Services Manager
This blog was originally posted in November 2018, but it is timely and excellent information to reshare. Have a Happy Thanksgiving! — Rich N.
As we prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought I would share some history and dispel some of the myths surrounding what we think of as the first Thanksgiving. In September 1620, approximately 120-130 men, women and children set sail aboard the Mayflower from England to the east coast of what is now New England. The ship they travelled on was not a plush passenger ship but a three masted merchant ship designed to hold cargo, not humans. There were no bathrooms, no bath tubs, conditions were less then sanitary and were very uncomfortable for the sixty-six-day journey it would take to get to North America. The ship eventually landed off the shores of Cape Cod, the sight of present day Massachusetts. On December 25 they began construction of their first buildings.
That first winter was a tough one as they began building houses and other structures that would become their settlement. Most passengers stayed on the Mayflower while the first houses were built. Unsanitary conditions and the cold weather, contributed to disease that overtook many who lived on the ship. By spring of 1621 over half of the Pilgrims and crew had died from disease. It is true that Squanto befriended the Pilgrims and acted as an interpreter and mediator between them and the Wampanoag Native People of the area. It was the Wampanoag that would sign a treaty with the Pilgrims and help them adapt to the land and survive that first year.
In the Fall of 1621 the Pilgrims celebrated their first official harvest and the survival of their fledgling settlement through its first year. They invited the local Wampanoag Native People to a three-day feast of thanksgiving to celebrate and thank them for their help. Over 90 Wampanoag including their leader Chief Massasoit attended the meal. Much food was shared between them during the three-day feast, but it didn’t look anything like our Thanksgiving meal of today. Yes, they had turkey, but it was wild turkey and not our large domesticated kind. They most likely ate duck, other fowl, including passenger pigeon which was plentiful enough to shoot over 200 or more at a time from the sky in a single shot. Their meat was roasted not baked in an oven like today. The Pilgrims didn’t have ovens so wouldn’t have had pies or breads either. Here is a list of what was believed to be on the menu.
Shellfish including lobster, clams, mussels, oysters, etc. Roasted whole turkey, duck, goose, venison
Fish and eel covered with leaves and baked in coals
Whole pumpkin, baked in coals and then served with honey
Two or three other kinds of squash, cut in pieces and cooked in large kettles
Small kettles of peas
Dried corn boiled in water
Corn meal, used to make corn bread and other flat iron breads
Nuts, hickory, acorns, walnuts, and more
Dried fruit including wild strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, cherries, cranberries and plums
Boiled corn meal, sometimes called gruel, served with honey
Other vegetables – Beets, turnips, onions, garlic, radishes, mustard greens, mushrooms, carrots, wild leeks
What was not on the menu was potatoes. White potatoes from South America and sweet potatoes from the Caribbean had not made it to North America by this first feast so no mashed potatoes or potatoes of any kind were served. They also didn’t have cranberry sauce, which would be another fifty years in the making. They most likely didn’t have stuffing like we know today though they may have stuffed their meats with nut meat and seasonings. Wine was not served during the meal, but instead most drank good old water. And finally, no pumpkin pie. Again, they didn’t have stoves to bake pies in and they didn’t have flour to bake with.
During their meals the Pilgrims didn’t use forks, and only ate with spoons, knives and their fingers. Large cloth napkins were used, with the men throwing it over the shoulder to wipe their mouths and beards on and the women placing it on their laps. Only salt was on the table for seasoning, not pepper, though they did use pepper during cooking. When serving the food, the best food was placed near the most important people, normally of highest social standing. Most didn’t sample all the foods but ate what was closest to them on the table.
So, while much of the food and the customs were very different then what is served at most Thanksgiving celebrations today, the spirit of the meal is similar. It is a time for friends and family to gather around the table and reflect on what we are thankful for over the past year. So, take some time this Thanksgiving to think about what you are most thankful for, but also take a moment to stop and think about what it may have been like to attend that first celebration in 1621. Happy Thanksgiving from Preservation Parks.