Nov 19, 2007

Pilgrim's Thanksgiving: Fact or Fiction?

The reason that we have so many myths associated with Thanksgiving is that it is an invented tradition. It doesn't originate in any one event. It is based on the New England puritan Thanksgiving, which is a religious Thanksgiving, and the traditional harvest celebrations of England and New England and maybe other ideas like commemorating the pilgrims. All of these have been gathered together and transformed into something different from the original parts. - James W. Baker, Senior Historian at Plimoth Plantation

What historians truly know about the holiday we know as "Thanksgiving" is is based on passages written by early colonists. One was a letter to a friend, dated December 1621, by Edward Winslow, who wrote about the harvest being gotten in their being a rejoicing over it and the eating of a meal which included 4 deer and some fowl.

In the culture of the Wampanoag Indians, who inhabited the area around Cape Cod, "thanksgiving" was an everyday activity. Linda Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag program at Plimouth Plantation states:
"We as native people [traditionally] have thanksgivings as a daily, ongoing thing. Every time anybody went hunting or fishing or picked a plant, they would offer a prayer or acknowledgment."

While the 52 pilgrim colonists, who had experienced a year of disease, hunger, and diminishing hopes, a bountiful harvest was, indeed, cause for a special celebration to give thanks. However, as Ms. Coombs adds:
"Neither the English people nor the native people in 1621 knew they were having the first Thanksgiving. No one knew that the details would interest coming generations. We're not sure why Massasoit and the 90 men ended up coming to Plimoth. There's an assumption that they were invited, but nowhere in the passage does it say they were. And the idea that they sat down and lived happily ever after is, well, untrue. The relationship between the English and the Wampanoag was very complex."

Since they did not speak the same language, the extent to which the colonists and Indians intermingled remains a mystery. But only a few details of that first Thanksgiving are certain, says Kathleen Curtin, food historian at the Plimoth Plantation.

First, wild turkey was never mentioned in Winslow's account, it is probable that the large amounts of "fowl" brought back by four hunters were seasonal waterfowl such as duck or geese. And if cranberries were served, they would have been used for their tartness or color, not the sweet sauce or relish so common today. In fact, it would be 50 more years before berries were boiled with sugar and used as an accompaniment to meat.

Potatoes weren't part of the feast, either. Neither the sweet potato nor the white potato was yet available to colonists. The presence of pumpkin pie appears to be a myth, too. The group may have eaten pumpkins and other squashes native to New England, but it is unlikely that they had the ingredients for pie crust, butter and wheat flour. Even if they had possessed butter and flour, the colonists hadn't yet built an oven for baking.

A couple of guesses can be made from other passages in Winslow's correspondence about the general diet at the time: lobsters, mussels, "sallet herbs," white and red grapes, black and red plums, and flint corn.

But the 19th century, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular Godey's Lady's Book, stumbled upon Winslow's passage and refused to let the historic day fade from the traditions of Americans. She filled her magazine with recipes and editorials about Thanksgiving.

In her magazine Hale wrote appealing articles about roasted turkeys, savory stuffing, and pumpkin pies, all the foods that today's holiday meals are likely to contain. In the process, she created holiday "traditions" that share few similarities with the original feast in 1621.

In 1858, Hale petitioned the president of the United States to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Five years later, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November "as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

And so, over the centuries, that first Thanksgiving took on a shape of mythological proportions. But how Americans celebrate today has little to do with the convergence of two different populations across an enormous cultural divide.


atet said...

I always love your posts about history! And yep -- they sat down and lived happily together? Nope, not so much.

Finn said...

Hi Michele, iteresting post today..lots and lots of information that my poor ole senior brain will promptly forget...or at least the facts of. Yup, that's just how it is these days. But, what then, shall I take from this post to enrich my day? Your love of 'gathering' in so many forms...facts, fabric, fruit...all safely gathered the winter winds can begin.
I guess I could say "tis the season whatever the reason"..if not with family and friends, perhaps each can take a moment and be thankful for the land we stand on, the air we breathe, and the many blessings that pass our way.
Sending Thanksgiving time love and big hugs, Finn and Ebby

Jeanne said...

Hi Michele,
The book package arrived here safe and sound. I'll let you know what I think after I read it. Your bag is CUTE!
I enjoyed all your Thanksgiving info today.
Jeanne :)

dee said...

I too love your historical posts-I just got the book "The Mayflower" by Nathaniel Philbrik(?sp) Anyway-I've been digging into that. Sending you Happy Thanksgiving wishes.

Quiltdivajulie said...

As a 13th generation Mayflower descendant, I appreciate your thoughtful post on Thanksgiving. I posted re the holiday on my blog earlier today ~

Mrs. Goodneedle said... a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens...

Amen. and so it was... and is! Thanksgiving should be practiced daily! Life is GOOD.

Anonymous said...

According to the Frugal Gourmet, remember him?, the Indians instructed the Pilgrims in the extensive use of the cranberry. The Indians ate cranberries raw and cooked, and pounded them into pemmican with meat and fat for use during the winter. They used it on wounds to draw out poisons and infections and for dye in making rugs and blankets. It is assumed the Indians brought cranberries to the first Thanksgiving since they were plentiful at that time of year. The Indians also introduced the pumpkin to the Pilgrims but it was cleaned out and filled with milk, eggs, spices and maple syrup. Then it was baked until the filling became a custard. That's my contribution to the history lesson.