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The First Thanksgiving

Many people trace Thanksgiving in the United States back to 1621, when the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn feast.

Actually, the feast was not a holiday, but one of a long tradition of feasts by Native Americans celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for the bountiful crops.

Members of the Pueblo, Cherokee, Creek and other tribes held harvest festivals, ceremonial dances and other celebrations long before the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.

The first official Thanksgiving took place in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day, and it has been a yearly tradition ever since.

The First Unofficial Thanksgiving

But what happened on the first, unofficial Thanksgiving in the 1600s?

Many of the pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower were members of the English Separatist Church, who fled their homes in England and traveled to Holland to escape religious persecution.

However, they considered the Dutch way of life ungodly, and negotiated with a London stock company to finance a pilgrimage to America.

About one-third of the people who sailed were Separatists.

They landed at Plymouth Rock on Dec. 11, 1620.

After the first winter, 46 of the 102 who sailed on the Mayflower had perished, but a bountiful harvest that fall saved them, and they celebrated with a feast that included 91 Indians who had helped them survive.

The feast lasted for three days.

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The Food

It is not really known exactly what they ate at that first feast -- the only items that we know were on the menu were wild fowl and venison.

Among the other items that could have been on the menu were:

  • Fruit: Plums, Grapes 
  • Grain: Wheat Flour, Indian Corn 
  • Meat: Venison, Seal 
  • Seafood: Cod, Eel, Clams, Lobster 
  • Seasonings: Olive Oil, Liverwort, Leeks, Dried Currants, Parsnips 
  • Vegetables: Pumpkin, Peas, Beans, Onions, Lettuce, Radishes, Carrots 
  • Wild Fowl: Turkey, Goose, Duck, Crane, Swan, Partridge, Eagle

Many of what we consider staples of the Thanksgiving meal couldn't possibly have appeared at the feasting table of the pilgrims and Native Americans.

Pigs and chickens were not native of the area. The pilgrims brought some with them, but there is no evidence that the pigs were butchered to provide ham, or that that hens were still laying eggs.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes were not common, as the potato was considered poisonous at that time.

Corn had been dried by that time of year, but they did make a fried bread from the corn crop.

Because the colonists did not have sugar at that time, it is unlikely they had cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie, but they did have a recipe for stewed pumpkin.

When Did Thanksgiving Become Official?

The feast was not repeated until June 29, 1676, when a day of thanksgiving was proclaimed.

In 1777, the 13 colonies joined together in a thanksgiving celebration to commemorate a victory over the British at Saratoga.

In 1789, President George Washington tried to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving, but experienced a lot of opposition, including from Thomas Jefferson.

Many historians believe that a writing campaign by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale over 40 years finally led to Lincoln setting the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.

Congress finally sanctioned Thanksgiving as a legal holiday in 1941, set for the fourth Thursday in November.

  • Now that you've studied a little, try our Thanksgiving quiz and test your knowledge!





Posted 5:59 PM

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