Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The First Thanksgiving

"First Thanksgiving" by Ferris, ca. 1912-1915

Many myths surround the first Thanksgiving. Very little is actually known about the event because only two accounts of the feast were ever written. The first account is William Bradford's journal titled “Of Plymouth Plantation” and the other is a publication written by Edward Winslow titled “Mourt's Relation.”

What is known is that the pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving feast to celebrate the successful fall harvest. Celebrating a fall harvest was an English tradition at the time and the pilgrims had much to celebrate. The 53 pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving were the only colonists to survive the long journey on the Mayflower and the first winter in the New World. Disease and starvation struck down half of the original 102 colonists. These pilgrims made it through that first winter and had a hearty supply of food to sustain them through the next winter.

Illustration of Squanto
Although the modern day Thanksgiving feast takes place on the third Thursday of November, the first Thanksgiving did not. This feast most likely happened sometime between September and November. No exact date for the feast has ever been recorded so one can only assume it happened sometime after the fall harvest. The celebration took place for three days and included recreational activities.

Guests at the feast included 90 Wampanoag Indians from a nearby tribe. Only one of these Indians, a young man named Squanto, spoke English. Squanto learned English prior to the pilgrim's arrival from visiting traders and explorers and served as a translator between the colonists and Indians. Neither Bradford or Winslow's account indicate whether the Indians were actually invited to the celebration or how they learned of it. Many historians have simply assumed they were invited. Edward Winslow's account merely states:

...many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others.”

The names of pilgrims at the feast indicates who died during that first winter. Attendees included four women: Eleanor Billington, Mary Brewster, Elizabeth Hopkins, Susanna White Winslow as well as twenty-two men : John Alden, Isaac Allerton, John Billington, William Bradford, William Brewster, Peter Brown, Francis Cooke, Edward Doty, Francis Eaton, [first name unknown] Ely, Samuel Fuller, Richard Gardiner, John Goodman, Stephen Hopkins, John Howland, Edward Lester, George Soule, Myles Standish, William Trevor, Richard Warren, Edward Winslow, Gilbert Winslow. Five teenage girls and nine teenage boys also attended the feast: Mary Chilton, Constance Hopkins, Priscilla Mullins, Elizabeth Tilley, a maidservant name Dorothy, Francis & John Billington, John Cooke, John Crackston, Samuel Fuller, Giles Hopkins, William Latham, Joseph Rogers, Henry Samson. The remaining 13 guests were young children: Bartholomew, Mary & Remember Allerton, Love & Wrestling Brewster, Humility Cooper, Samuel Eaton, Damaris & Oceanus Hopkins, Desire Minter, Richard More, Resolved & Peregrine White.
Pilgrims arriving in Plymouth

Many dishes served during modern Thanksgiving meals were not present at the first Thanksgiving. The colonists didn't have potatoes, nor did they have butter or flour necessary for making pies. The pilgrims hadn't even built their first oven by the time of the first Thanksgiving. Cranberries might have been served but only for color or tartness, instead of as a sweet sauce. Neither Bradford or Winslow's writing reveal what was actually served at the first Thanksgiving but guesses can be made based on the types of food they often wrote about such as mussels, lobsters, grapes, plums, corn and herbs. There is no actual proof that the colonists ate turkey at the feast either. Turkey wasn't even associated with the Thanksgiving holiday until an editor of a magazine called Godey's Lady's Book came across Edward Winslow's writings about the feast in the 1840s.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" by Brownscombe, ca 1914
When this editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, read Winslow's writings, she decided to bring this historic celebration back to life. Up until then, Thanksgiving was only a regional New England holiday and wasn't celebrated across the country like it is today. Hale began publishing recipes and articles about the feast. Shortly after, in 1854, Hale heard about Bradford's book, which had been stolen during the American Revolution and resurfaced in the library of Fulham Palace in London that year. Hale focused her attention on the brief sentence about the colonist's hunt for wild turkeys that fall: And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc,” Bradford wrote. Despite the fact that Bradford never stated they ate turkey at the Thanksgiving feast, Hale started publishing articles about Thanksgiving dinners with roasted turkey and the two became synonymous.

Many people believe Thanksgiving became a reoccurring celebration for the pilgrims. Whether this is true or not is unclear. There are no other accounts of the pilgrims holding any more harvest celebrations after 1621. It is possible that the feasts happened, but if it did it wasn't recorded.

The feast celebrated by the pilgrims in 1621 was never actually called “Thanksgiving” by the colonists. It was simply a harvest celebration. A few years later, in July of 1623, the pilgrims did hold what they called a “Thanksgiving.” This was simply a religious day of prayer and fasting that had nothing to do with the fall harvest. Over the years, the names of the two events became intertwined and by the late 1600s many individual colonies and settlements, began holding “Thanksgiving feasts” during the autumn months.

Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving on December 18, 1777 and then in 1789, George Washington declared the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving as well. These were merely declarations and not official holidays. Future presidents did not continue the Thanksgiving declaration.

Thanksgiving didn't become a national holiday until Hale began writing letters to each sitting president starting in 1846. She wrote letters to five presidents: Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln asking them to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Abraham Lincoln was the only president to listen and supported legislation making it a national holiday in 1863. America was in the middle of its bloody Civil War and Lincoln hoped the new holiday would unify the bitterly divided country. The holiday was finally a success and Thanksgiving has continued ever since.


Pilgrim Hall Museum: Primary Sources For "The First Thanksgiving" At Plymouth

The Christian Science Monitor: The First Thanksgiving; Elizabeth Armstrong; November 27, 2007

All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life”; Jack Santino; 1994

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