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First Thanksgiving…

November 27, 2008

Today is Thanksgiving Day. When we talk about the first Thanksgiving, we’re referring to an event that happened in 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. But there were actually Thanksgiving ceremonies in the United States much earlier — in 1565, 600 Spanish settlers arrived in what is now St. Augustine, Florida, and had a Mass of Thanksgiving to celebrate their safe arrival, and followed it up with a feast. Other Thanksgiving celebrations occurred in El Paso, Texas, and in the Virginia Colony.

But the most famous is the Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, when the Plymouth colonists celebrated with the Wampanoag Indians. It was the colonists’ first harvest, so it was a joyful occasion. The Pilgrims had barely survived the last winter and had lost about half their population. But since then, they had built seven houses, a meeting place, and three storehouses for food. Now they actually had food to store.

They invited the Wampanoag Indians to feast with them. The Wampanoag people and their chief, Massasoit, were friendly toward the Pilgrims and helped teach them how to live on different land and with new food sources. A man known as Squanto, a Patuxet living with the Wampanoag tribe, knew English because he had been a slave in England. He taught the settlers how to plant corn, beans, and squash and how to catch eel and shellfish. And he was their interpreter.

So the Pilgrims asked the Native Americans to share in their first harvest. Harvest festivals were nothing new; both the English and the Wampanoag had similar traditions in their culture.

At the first Thanksgiving, they didn’t eat mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, and they probably didn’t even eat turkey. The only two foods that are actually named in the primary accounts are wild fowl and venison. The meal was mostly meat and seafood, but probably included squash, cabbage, corn, and onions, and spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper.

Unlike our modern Thanksgiving, this event wasn’t just one day. Many of the Wampanoag had to walk two days to get to the Plymouth settlement. There were about 50 English people and 90 Wampanoag, and since there wasn’t enough room in the seven houses for the guests, they went ahead and built themselves temporary shelters. In between eating, they played games and sports, danced and sang.

The most detailed account of the first Thanksgiving comes from one of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow. He wrote:

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 fruits of our labor. […] 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.

Thanksgiving has been celebrated as a national holiday on different dates, in different months, and one year it was even celebrated twice. It wasn’t standardized until 1941, when President Roosevelt signed a bill declaring that the fourth Thursday in November would be Thanksgiving Day.

(HT:  Garrison Keillor)

J

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