The first Thanksgiving was meant to be a simple recreation of a traditional English harvest festival, celebrated on Sept. 29 in the Pilgrims’ homeland. But the colonists got more than they hoped for that first feast.
The year 1621 had been a challenging one for the colonists. That winter, more than half the colony had died of influenza and, in the summer, unchristian-like squabbles over sharing crops had destroyed whatever communal harmony had survived. In the fall, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford privatized and subdivided the cornfields. Then, he negotiated a peace treaty with the local Native Americans who had taught them to grow the lifesaving grain. And, he invited Wampanoag Chief Massasoit to dinner.
The Algonquin tribes, of which the Wampanoag was one, celebrate five planting festivals per year, so Chief Massasoit knew just what to expect—a joyous three full days of dining, singing, dancing, and playing dozens of games.
Fortunately for the Pilgrims, Algonquin festivals are potlucks. The native people brought most of the food to that first feast: Five deer, many turkeys and wild swans, smoked salmon and fresh cod, beans of all sorts, corn pudding, maple sugar candy, and an assortment of berries. There were no pigs in the colony in 1621, so there was no ham and that staple of Southern celebrations, sweet potatoes, don’t grow this far north—so don’t even think about the marshmallows.
Pilgrims had no cows to milk, so cream was out of the question, but it wouldn’t have mattered. They had not yet constructed ovens, so there were no pies to top with swirls of whipped cream. As for the cranberries, which grew wild in the bogs all around them, the Algonquin called them ibimi, or “bitter berry,” and used them medicinally to treat infections and as a dye for rugs and blankets. They never ate them. Since the Pilgrims had used up all the sugar brought from England, they probably followed the natives’ example and ate stewed apples with honey instead.
On both sides of the Thanksgiving table, dining habits were remarkably similar. They ate whatever was nearest at hand. In the 17th century, no one took a “boardinghouse reach,” nor were plates passed among polite society—Pilgrim or Wampanoag. Neither Pilgrims nor Indians used forks, and most food was torn apart and eaten with fingers. The Native Americans washed their hands before dinner and then licked them clean of morsels as they dined. They must have been bemused by an odd colonial habit. The English held onto large scraps of fabric into which they wrapped their fingers before grabbing bits of meat from the stew. They ate from the midst of this big cloth wad and then crumpled up the greasy napkin back on their laps.
Children were seen, of course, but they never ate with adults, Pilgrim nor Wampanoag. Instead, they served them.
Children were also tasked with turning. Tender haunches of meat were roasted on a spit that needed constant attention, and it was the job of young boys to keep dinner from burning. Chewier cuts of the carcass were thrown into big pots with dried beans and simmered for days in dirt pits. The flavors might have surprised those of you who think English food is bland. Pilgrims loved spices and added all they could find to soups and stews: Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, ginger, and every kind of dried fruit and nut were tossed into the pot.
It would be nice to say that this three-day food fest was the first annual rite of camaraderie between the tribes who lived on the land and the strangers who came to share it, but history betrays that sweet sentiment, and the truce did not hold—rather, it was followed by years of turmoil and bloodshed, almost entirely at the hands of European settlers.
Still, one of the first acts of Congress was to set aside a “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” to thank God for blessing America. Seventy-five years later, President Lincoln made it official: “I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States [to unite with one heartfelt voice] … and observe the last Thursday in November as a day of thanksgiving.”
The day was moved to the fourth Thursday in November in 1941 for an economic boost—to expand the Christmas shopping season.
The Malibu Times prints this brief history lesson (first published in 2007) each Thanksgiving season in what’s become an annual tradition.
Learn more: history.com/topics/thanksgiving