The first Thanksgiving: myth and reality

When Americans think about the first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, they tend to reflect back to images of smiling Pilgrims and Native Americans huddled around a large table filled with copious amounts of food.

In addition, there is the image of a Pilgrim elder offering an extended season of prayer over the feast.

Yet the two surviving accounts of the first Thanksgiving challenge some of our images.

The second governor of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, included an account of what happened in the fall of 1621 in his work "Of Plymouth Plantation." His version was supplemented and expanded by Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow, who also wrote about the first Thanksgiving in his work "Mourt's Relation." These works constitute the only original sources for the first Thanksgiving.

According to Bradford, the first Thanksgiving occurred sometime between the present-day Sept. 28 (Bradford used the Julian calendar which was 10 days behind our own Gregorian calendar) and sometime in mid-November. Although Bradford gives these chronological clues before and after the feast, the actual date of the first Thanksgiving remains unknown.

As generally acknowledged the colonists endured numerous hardships in the months before the fall harvest. They experienced a very cold winter and lost many of their number to disease, including most of the adult women and the colony's first governor, John Carver. Community leaders rationed precious and dwindling grain supplies.

Nevertheless, they felt a time of thanksgiving and a colony-wide celebration were overdue. While the event certainly included a time of thanks and remembrance, it was more of a celebration for the 53 surviving Pilgrims and Chief Massasoit with his 90 Indian braves.

In fact, the celebration lasted three days, according to Winslow. Furthermore, he adds that enough food was left over to feed the colony for "almost a week."

In addition to the feasting, the three-day event included hunting and unnamed "recreations." Winslow recorded that the colonists also "exercised our arms" for the Native American guests (perhaps a demonstration of a military drill or a shooting match). Not to be outdone, Chief Massasoit and his braves also hunted and donated five deer to the Plymouth community.

Using their newfound knowledge of New World farming, fishing and hunting acquired from Squanto, the Pilgrims had gathered supplies of food for the days of feasting. This included corn (Bradford later stated that Indian corn was more valuable than silver), turkeys (yes, we can assume that this was on the menu), water fowl (ducks and geese), cod fish, bass fish, other unnamed fish, venison and some unnamed vegetables. Years later in his account, Bradford also mentioned clams, berries, peas and beans as staples of the Pilgrim diet. Absent from the two narratives are any mention of potatoes or pumpkin in any form.

The 143 participants were served by only four surviving adult women from the original group of settlers.

While our many images of the first Thanksgiving fail to conform to the reality of the event, as recounted by Bradford and Winslow, the holiday that the Pilgrims introduced remains with us today. Whether spent in reflection or celebration, we should all be mindful of the blessings we have received.

Lindsay Blanken is a history and English major at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky.; Stephen Douglas Wilson is a history professor at Alice Lloyd College and a former member of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.

Comments (1)

  • Karen Wilson Reply

    Ms. Blanken did a very good job on the article. Only four women served all those guests? Wow!

    November 23, 2016 at 10:14 am

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