The first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast, so the modern-day holiday would be the equivalent of day two of the 1621 event for what was then an English settlement.
At the party were 52 English settlers and 90 Wampanoag guests. That’s right. The guests outnumbered the hosts. The cooks among the settlers: the four surviving married women, five teenage girls, and a maidservant.
Many traditions we associate with Thanksgiving are from the 19th century. It wasn’t even an annual holiday until President Abraham Lincoln designated it in 1863.
In the 17th century, the settlers didn’t know they were setting a precedent, which likely occurred between September 21 and November 11. They were just glad to be alive after a year of hunger and hardship, and they wanted to celebrate with food and recreation.
According to settler Edward Winslow, four Englishmen had gone fowling and killed enough to feed the settlers for a week. The Wampanoag guests stopped by, were entertained for three days, and contributed five deer (about 360 pounds of venison if they were mature bucks).
The fare was not as portrayed in Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, an 1889 novel by Jane Goodwin Austin (an account later taught as part of school curricula). Among other things, Austin describes a long table laden with stew, clam chowder, turnips, oysters, venison, ale and root beer, hasty pudding, and of course a turkey, only stuffed with beechnuts instead of bread.
The real menu probably had fowl, venison, corn (also called maize), ale, and perhaps cod and a pudding made from goat’s milk. It’s possible the fowl was wild turkey – the Plymouth Plantation is in its range – but the area also supported geese, ducks, and passenger pigeons.
The tale of two disparate peoples coming together to celebrate has been mythologized over the centuries. Still, I must admit I love this story of friendship and fellowship, even though I feel sorry for the women who had to cook for all these people.
Originally published November 2013 in English Historical Fiction Authors.
“The First Thanksgiving,” Christian Science Monitor
Eating History, Andrew F Smith
A Thousand Years over a Hot Stove, Laura Schenone