The Very First Thanksgiving – Do We Have the Wrong Picture?

Our traditional picture of Thanksgiving is generally of colorfully dressed Native Americans and Pilgrims looking uptight and pious in their black and white garb. The table is groaning under the weight of a generously laid out Thanksgiving feast comprising of mouth watering delicacies like turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, and cranberry sauce, among other things.

Rosy though this picture might be, it merits thought as to how much of it is based in fact and what part is fiction. Of course, there were Indians and there were the Pilgrims and there was a lot of food on the table. But was it all peace hominy between both parties back in 1621? Dr. Libby O’Connel, History Channel’ lead historian helps us better understand what it was really like at the beginning of time.

The most accurate information Dr. O’Connel has of the inaugural Thanksgiving is from colonist Edward Winslow’s journal which is among the precious few of the existing records related to the D-day. The very first correction we need to make is that Thanksgiving is not a one-day feast. It was referred to as a harvest festival and celebrated over a period of three days.

The next alteration is related to the food involved in this great feast, but I’ll come back to that in just a minute. After having survived a harsh and bitter winter in the New World, the survivors were overjoyed with the bountiful harvest they had produced after great hard work. To mark this day, they decided to have a feast and Governor William Bradford sent out a party of four men to shoot some fowl to accompany the mountain of veggies supplied by the Pilgrims. The four hunters returned with enough fowl to keep the colony happy for the next month or so.

Now, the feast, at that time was not meant to include the indigenous Indians living in that area. In fact, Chief Massasoit and his 90 Wampanoag braves tuned up at the feast uninvited with the sole purpose of investigating what all the shooting had been about (remember all the fowls they’d hunted). Although the reason why they arrived unannounced is speculation on part of Dr. O’Connel, it seems reasonable enough to be accepted at face value.

The pilgrims displayed excellent manners and invited the Indians to join the feast, and as a gestural token, the Indians contributed five deer to the feast. So, historians are quite sure that the first Thanksgiving feast included venison, fowl meat, squash, onions, pumpkins, beans, and Jerusalem artichokes. There were no pies or sweet potatoes, and there was certainly no cranberry sauce, since the colonists barely had any sugar supply to make a substantial amount for the feast.

Finally, although the Pilgrims appear to be rather grim, they were not teetotalers by any long shot. According to Dr. O’Connel, “If they had beer or hard cider, they would be happily consuming it.” I guess, you can start serving alcohol without restraint this Thanksgiving – after all it is traditional, isn’t it?


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