Debunking Thanksgiving Day Myths

by Cie McCullough Buschle on November 20, 2011

in Arts and Culture

When, Where, Why – The first Thanksgiving might not have happened how you think

At some point in elementary school we all were taught that the first Thanksgiving took place in Massachusetts near Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims were all very thankful for a good harvest after a few hard years and invited the nearby Native Americans over to share in the bountiful goodness of all that God had offered them. The friendly Natives brought some local goodies like corn and pumpkins and ever since then we have been having huge feasts at the end of November.

The First Thanksgiving (1912 - 1915) by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

The First Thanksgiving (1912 - 1915) by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, giving off the wrong impression of what things were like

Which makes a very nice myth or legend for a new country and young children, but doesn’t really make for good history.

The idea of giving thanks for a bountiful harvest was part of this land long before the Pilgrims came. It has been celebrated for centuries by Native Americans and the First Nations of Canada. Nations like the Cherokee, Cree and Pueblo held festivals and ceremonial dances. This celebration, known as “wopila”, or giving thanks, is held for any reason, at any time of year.

The Separatists and Puritans also had traditions of providential holidays, but first they went through times of fasting and prayer before any celebrations. And, contrary to what we in the Northeast like to believe, so did the Spainish explorers seeking gold and the French Huguenot colonists. Coronado led 1,500 men in thanksgiving near modern day Amarillo, Texas, in May of 1541, and a colony of Huguenots in Jacksonville, Florida, held solemn praise and thanksgiving after they survived a Spanish raiding party. In August of 1607 a colony in Kennebec, Maine, celebrated a harvest feast and prayer gathering and Jamestown, Virginia, held a traditional prayer of thanksgiving service in the Spring of 1610 after supply ships arrived from England.

All if this happened before October of 1621, when the 53 members of Plymouth colony were joined by Massasoit Ousamequin of the Wampanoag and 90 of his tribesman.

But, who cares which Thanksgiving day was first – What did they eat?

Any of these first Thanksgivings would have included local fare. We don’t have a record of every menu, but Jacksonville, Kennebec, Jamestown and Plymouth would have included whatever the colonies had in abundance, and that would have been anything from the abundance of water that surrounded the colonies. Cod, eels, bass, smelt, clams, crabs, lobster, mussels will all be included. Of course there would be wild fowl, but not just turkey. Any bird of considerable size might be shot down and roasted over an open flame: geese and ducks, of course, but also swans and even eagles. Venison would round out the meats.

Side dishes would have been what crops the colonists could have coaxed out of the new world earth and local varieties they may not have yet been familiar with. The Three Sisters would have been a gift of the Wampanoag: beans, squash and dried maize (or corn). Other vegetables might have bean peas, beetroot, wild onion and carrots, and pumpkins, but not in a pie. Any grain products would have been barley and wheat, and of course local fruits and berries. There was a cake-like desert made by the Wampanoag: strawberries and parched, ground corn.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914) by Jennie A. Brownscombe, might be a closer representation of what things were like at Plymouth

No mashed potatoes or yams in the Plymouth or Kennebec, at least, as they had yet to be introduced to New England. No popcorn either – this is a myth. The corn would have been Northern Flint, and doesn’t pop very well. Although cranberries are grown all around modern day Plymouth, there is no mention in any historical documents or diaries of cranberry sauce or jelly being served.

One thing that happened at Plymouth Colony for certain, and has set the standard to this very day, was that the Thanksgiving was not complete without games. Games to play and games to watch. Nobody really had a big enough table – except the “high table” with the political, military and religious leaders – so many people ate what they could or took something to then watch a test of skill or sporting competition.

Wait, too many guests for the table and eating while watching a sporting competition? That sounds very familiar.

| Cie McCullough Buschle lives with her dog Einstein and a cat named Burton Guster. She is a lifelong traveler and enjoys researching history through holidays, toys, and everyday objects. Cie is a sculptor and co-owns The Creative Chameleon, a place where kids and adults can create, paint, celebrate, and just have a lot of fun. Sometimes you can find her time traveling back to the Middle Ages as part of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

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