In my mind’s eye, I picture the first Thanksgiving being held outside with native Americans and recent English immigrants (dressed like Pilgrims) milling around outside on a beautiful, sunny day, with autumn leaves blazing in all their glorious color in the bright sunshine. But, let’s think a moment. Although an exact date for the first Thanksgiving is unknown, it is known that it was celebrated in November of 1621 in what is now part of the state of Massachusetts. Have you ever been to Massachusetts in November? While it can be pleasant outside, it is not normally sufficiently warm to accommodate an ongoing feast (this one lasted three days). So, is my image (mostly gleaned from history books and paintings in museums) accurate? Was this an OUTDOORLICIOUS event that would serve, quite possibly, as the first recorded outdoor living event in the new world?
According to historians, the answer is yes. With houses very small, the ability to seat ninety Wampanoag Indians and the male settlers would be non-existent. And, you did read that correctly—male settlers. The first Thanksgiving was as much a way to give thanks for a bountiful year as a political outreach of sorts. The men of the two tribes, so to speak, were meeting to check each other out. It has been reported that the settlers interrupted the feast at some point to display the amazing fire power of their guns, perhaps to show who had the upper hand in case of tensions? Or, maybe they were simply eager to share their fervor over male toys. We’ll never know… The settlers were celebrating their first year’s harvest and preparing for the long winter ahead. While they had much to eat, the meal, in some ways, is similar to our present day meal, but there are some noticeable differences. A medley of fowl was eaten (ducks, geese, and possibly swans); however, there is no record of turkey having been included. Seafood was almost certainly a part of the feast: mussels, lobster, oyster, and perhaps clams were an important part of their diet and readily available. Beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, onions, and possibly peas were available. Turnips, pumpkins, and squash would have been on the menu but not potatoes. These had not come back to the New World after the Spanish explorers found them in South America and took them to Europe in the previous century. Corn would have been on the menu but most likely as a cornmeal porridge sweetened with molasses. Fruits and berries were also important sources of nutrition and would have been harvested, as well.
Regardless of the region of the country you live in, your Thanksgiving Day meal will resemble those of the inhabitants of the other forty-nine states who have been celebrating this national holiday since 1941. You may include macaroni and cheese or rice if you are from the south, a crab stuffing if you are from the Chesapeake Bay area, or chilis if you are from the southwest, but everyone will be eating turkey, stuffing (or dressing) and gravy. Most of us will include mashed potatoes and an assortment of pies: apple, pumpkin, and pecan being the most popular.
Although my eleventh great grandfather lived in Plymouth Colony and was married to his wife by Myles Standish (below– Assistant Governor, Treasurer, and first military commander of Plymouth Colony), he did not arrive until 1623 aboard the Anne. Unfortunately, no family stories exist which may cast more light upon my questions about that first Thanksgiving. In his honor, I shall be thankful that he arrived to the New World safe and sound and endured through the hardships of the time to marry and have children who would marry other ancestral lines which have continued to me. Sharing this connection, however distant, makes Thanksgiving even more special to me.
I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving, full of friendship and fellowship, family and food. May your day be filled with joys that turn into memories that you share with your family in the future.