Most everyone nowadays is aware that America’s “First Thanksgiving” didn’t go down exactly how we were taught in elementary school. Native Americans didn’t emerge out of the woods bearing roast turkey & stuffing. And Pilgrims didn’t greet them with pumpkin pies, wearing giant buckled hats. (Buckles didn’t come into fashion for another 100 years or so.) Heck, it wasn’t even in late November.
In fact, the first “Thanksgiving” wasn’t officially a “Thanksgiving” at all. In the colonists’ native English tradition, a “Thanksgiving” was a religious day, declared mostly randomly, to observe what was believed to be a one-time gift from God. Like the end of a draught. Or the return of an important person after a dangerous journey. And one thing a “Thanksgiving” absolutely wouldn’t include would be an abundance of food. It was a solemn, religious, all-day affair usually marked by fasting, not feasting.
What the colonists at Plymouth celebrated with the Wampanong native tribe was called a “Harvest Home.” It was a fairly regular event that came at the end of every harvest season. Back in their English homeland, farmers provided harvest meals to their labor to thank them for their hard work.
So what do we know happened at that “First Thanksgiving?”
Unfortunately, there’s only one eye-witness written record of it from a letter written the following December by Edward Winslow. We know that the harvest feast occurred sometime between September 21st and November 9th.
The Plymouth plantation had a pretty rough first year in America trying to feed itself and build shelter. So when the harvest was moderately successful, and they saw flocks of migrating geese, pigeons & ducks flying overhead, they got pretty excited. The governor of Plymouth Plantation sent four men out to shoot the migrating fowl, and they came back loaded. So they started to party. Along with the birds, the three day long celebration would’ve included corn (which was a new grain to them,) cabbages, spinach, chard & pumpkins. Without access to sugar, there wouldn’t have been any recognizable desserts, although wild cranberries and concord grapes may have been added to savory dishes for added flavor.
And there would’ve also been a fair amount of shellfish and eels on the tables. Yes, eels. The eels found in the nearby bay were thought to be especially sweet and fat in comparison to their English counterparts.
Shortly after they began their celebration, about 90 men from the local Wampanoag tribe – along with one of their leaders, Massasoit – joined the colonists. The Wampanoag men brought five deer to the party. To the colonists, venison was a delicacy. In England, venison was only available to landed gentry, and was illegal for commoners to kill. To the Wampanoag, however, it was a staple of their diet.
And what about turkey? Well, there may have been a wild turkey or two mixed in with the other fowl. It’s possible. But it wouldn’t have been one of the preferred birds to eat, when given a choice of duck, goose or pigeon.
So, turkey was possible. Pies were definitely absent. And the word “Thanksgiving” was never uttered. In fact, there weren’t even any “Pilgrims” present. The word “Pilgrim” was not a label used by the Plymouth Colonists. They were only pilgrims in the sense that they made a pilgrimage to a new land. The title “Pilgrim” only began being (erroneously) applied to them by later historians.
Even the holiday itself wasn’t officially recognized for another 242 years, when Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863.
But for all the discrepancies between that 1621 celebration and the holiday we celebrate today, there’s one big similarity. Just as our Thanksgivings of today bring friends and family around a table, that original celebration between the Wampanoag and Plymouth Colonists was also meeting between “neighbors.”
And that’s good enough for us here at Beekman 1802 Farm.
Happy “Harvest Home,” everyone!
The facts in this post were compiled from the book “Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie,” by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver, and Plimoth Plantation.