Happy Turkey Day… but shouldn’t have been venison, calm, lobster, rabbit, goose day?
Way back in 1620 the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock to begin the settlement of the new world… right? Well no… they did arrive in 1620 on the Mayflower, that’s true! They weren’t called pilgrims there were colonist but they didn’t call themselves that, see pilgrims make pilgrimages for religious reason to spread the word of their religion… these folks were ill prepared to spread anything as they came to the new world completely unequipped to setup a new civilization… in reality they called themselves “Saints”; others called them “Separatists.” Some of the settlers were “Puritans,” dissidents but not separatists who wanted to “purify” the Church of England. It wasn’t until around the time of the American Revolution that the name “Pilgrims” came to be associated with the Plimoth (Plymouth) settlers, and the “Pilgrims” became the symbol of American morality and Christian faith, fortitude, and family… a symbol not a fact. So we’ll call them pilgrims to keep it simple. Now recall my post on the pilgrims and the failed attempt at socialism and later problems with “immorality” as written by William Bradford. It’s worth noting that they were so poorly prepared that at the end of the first year, out of the 102 people that arrived on Mayflower only 53 were left for the “first thanksgiving.” … not a good start.
But the Plymouth Rock part is true, right? Well, no it’s not either… the colonist landed in a sandy inlet on Cape Cod as written by William Bradford the first governor of the Plymouth Colony then they sailed to the a area to what would become Plymouth, but first they sent out a small craft to find a place to land which they were nearly lost in a storm and Indian attacks… but that’s another story. So the first mention of Plymouth Rock wasn’t until 1715 nearly a 100 years after the Mayflower’s arrival. The myth began with 94 year old Thomas Faunce who in 1741 claimed his father told him some 120 years earlier that was the rock the colonist first landed on when he heard the community was going to build a wharf over the rock, “which impressed his mind with deep concern, and excited a strong desire to take a last farewell of the cherished object” (From History of the Town of Plymouth by James Thacher, 1835) and from there the story Plymouth Rock was born, it’s great for tourism but reality it’s not.
But they ate and had a big feast right and the Pilgrims invited the Indians to share in their wealth of the harvest and everybody was happy-happy, right? … Ah not exactly. See the Indians didn’t really trust the pilgrims nor did the pilgrims trust the Indians… in fact when the pilgrims went out to hunt for the so-called First Thanksgiving (which wasn’t the first but that’s another story too) the Indians thought the pilgrims were preparing for war with them.
According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys*.
*nowhere is “turkey” ever mentioned by name in Bradford or Winslow’s writings that I recall they only list it as “wild fowl” i.e. duck, goose, dove, turkey and any number of birds could have been collected.
In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.”
per: Correspondence with Margaret M. Bruchac about the relationship Samoset, Tisquantum, Hobbamock, and Massasoit. See also Margaret M. Bruchac and Catherine O’Neill Grace, 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.
So how about the deer and wild fowl stuff, Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation writes (old spelling intact)…
“our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, 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. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.”
But they had popcorn right… I mean – come on every school kid knows the Indians brought popcorn to the first thanksgiving. There had to be popcorn… ah sorry, no it’s a myth invented by Jane G. Austen in her novel Standish of Standish (1889), p. 281:
The meal was a rude one looked upon with the dainty eyes and languid appetites of to-day, but to those sturdy and heroic men and women it was a veritable feast, and at its close Quadequina with an amiable smile nodded to one of his attendants, who produced and poured upon the table something like a bushel of popped corn, – a dainty hitherto unseen and unknown by most of the Pilgrims. All tasted, and John Howland hastily gathering up a portion upon a wooden plate carried it up to the Common house for the delectation of the women, that is to say, for Elizabeth Tilley, whose firm young teeth craunched [sic.] it with much gusto.
As far as can be ascertained, there was no true popcorn or podcorn in the eastern New England region in 1621 or at the “First Thanksgiving”. It hasn’t been found archaeologically, and there isn’t any New England reference to the popcorn we know today in the 17th century. Sweet corn is documented as only arriving in the region ca. 1779 (Mangelsdof, p. 110), and popcorn may well have arrived in a similar way from the upstate New York area. The presence of the larger flint and/or flour corn in New England is well documented in the studies on corn (such as Paul Mangelsdorf, Corn Its Origin, Evolution and Improvement (Cambridge, 1974); Arthur Parker, “Iroquois Uses of Maize,” in Parker on the Iroquois, Fenton, ed. (Syracuse, 1968); Paul Weatherwax, Indian Corn in Old America (New York, 1954). The first widespread use of corn in the Northeast is now set at ca.1100, A.D. (Bruce D. Smith, Rivers of Change, (Washington, 1992), p. 292), which might account for a fairly specialized selection of maize varieties here 500 years later.
So what do we know about the First Thanksgiving? Well not a lot as only one creditable account survive and that is of Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation which can be read in it’s entirety here.
Know your history folks it keep more and more bastardized everyday… have a happy and safe Thanksgiving! See you when it’s all over I need a break and I thank you for reading.