The First Thanksgiving Feast

There is a great deal of speculation as to what the Pilgrims ate at the first Thanksgiving. There are only two known contemporary descriptions of the event, and one of those was written twenty years after the fact. The earliest mention of the Thanksgiving feast comes from Edward Winslow, in a letter that he wrote home to England:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, Many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

William Bradford, the “historian” of the colony, writing about twenty years after the fact:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.  For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion.  All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees).  And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.  Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.  Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

As you can see, there is not much evidence here. The authors mention deer, fowl, turkeys, cod, bass and other fish, and corn.

Foods The Pilgrims Had Available

Aside from the written evidence, educated guesses can be made based on the stores that the Pilgrims had with them, and what we know about both Indian and English meals. Among the things they may have eaten were:

1) Fish: Cod and bass are mentioned. The English also ate eel . Its a good assumption that other fish available in the area, such as shad and bluefish also were eaten. Still, the Pilgrims were no fishermen, and the Speedwell, a boat which was left in England, was supposed to have been their fishing vessel.

2) Shellfish: These aren’t mentioned in the documents referring to the first Thanksgiving, but other accounts from the time mention them. Clams, lobster, mussels and oysters are native to the area, and were eaten by the Indians.

3) Birds: The Pilgrims mention fowl and turkeys. Fowl probably included goose, duck, crane, and partridge. Other Pilgrim era documents mention swans and eagles, so it is likely that they ate these also. The birds would have been roasted, not baked, for the Pilgrims had no ovens.

4) Deer: Vension was plentiful, and a favorite of the Indians. It would have been roasted on a fire.

5) Planted Crops: In the spring of 1621, the Pilgrims reported having planted twenty six acres of crops: twenty of corn, six of barley and some peas. The peas did not survive. If they followed Indian practices, and the advice of Squanto and Samoset, they also might have planted squash, including pumpkin, radishes, carrots, onions and cabbage.

6) Gathered Crops: As with the Indians, the Pilgrims could have gathered a great deal of food from the forests, including walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts, wild carrots, and other roots, raspberries, strawberries, wild plums and cherries and blueberries. None of the berries would have been in season, so if they had them, they would have been dried.

7) Supplies from England: Although the Pilgrims had brought with them a number of supplies from England, there would have been very little of these left after the first winter and spring, for these were the only foods that they had to eat. A letter from Captain John Smith offers a contemporary list of the supplies that a well-organized expedition would have with them, including: “Fine wheat flour, close and well packed, rice, currants, sugar, Prunes, Cinnamon, Ginger, Pepper, Cloves, Green Ginger, Oil, Butter, Holland Cheese, Wine Vinegar, canarie Sack, Aqua Vitae., Fine Wines, Pure water, Lemon Juice [for Scurvy], white Biscuit, Oatmeal, bacon, Dried Neat’s Tongues, Beefe, packed in vinegar, Legs of Mutton, minced and stewed, close-packed with tried sewet or butter in earthen pots.”

8) Seasonings: In spite of the reputation for English food being bland, spices at the time were very much in fashion. It’s likely that they had a store of the spices John Smith recommended, including salt and pepper, cinnamon, ginger and the like. The also would have been able to season their food with onions.

Foods The Pilgrims Probably Didn’t Have

While you can make quite a feast out of these foods, there are a number of dishes at a “traditional” Thanksgiving that the Pilgrims most likely would not have had:
1) Pies: Flour was in short supply, as was sugar. They didn’t have any milk. And in any event, they probably didn’t have an oven. While it is possible to bake using a cast iron kettle set in the fire — as in a “dutch” oven — the product would have been more akin to a cobbler.

Instead of pumpkin pie, they would more likely have made a pumpkin soup. And apple pies were not available because there were no apples at the time in North America.

2) Ham: while they had brought pigs with them, there’s no mention of one having been slaughtered.

3) Cranberry Sauce: They had cranberries, but with no sugar, the sauce probably was not on the menu.If it was, it was awfully sour.

4) Corn on the cob. At that time of year, corn still on the cob was being dried for winter storage. Its more likely that corn was used as a flour to make fried bread. Some contemporary accounts mention the women making “hoe cakes.”

5) Milk products. There weren’t any cows on the Mayflower.

6) Chicken and eggs: While some were stored on the Mayflower, it isn’t known how many, of any survived to the fall of 1621.

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