What Actually Happened At That First Thanksgiving in 1621?
There have been many many versions of the celebration we have come to call "Thanksgiving" but most versions agree on a few points:
- The traditional story of Thanksgiving sets it in 1621 at the Plymouth Colony on the coast of Massachusetts, although if you are from Virginia you may honor a smaller version that took place in that colony 2 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. We do have some historical writings from the Plymouth celebration so we'll go with that one. Documentation, documentation, documentation.
- It took place after the first Pilgrim harvest, which was a relatively bountiful one in 1621 at the Plymouth Plantation.
- Of the original 102 pilgrims that left England on the Mayflower, only 53 survived the trip and the first cold winter and were around for the celebration.
- The Pilgrims sent out a "fowling party" of four men to bring back many birds for the feast, which included some wild turkeys.
- There were 90 Indians who sent their own hunting party and brought back five deer. They would have been roasted on spits over open fire.
- Most accounts seem to agree that the Pilgrims started the celebration because it was a common practice in England to have a feast after a successful harvest. The Indian village was nearby and residents came over to see what was happening. A three day party ensued. The lovefest continued annually for about ten years until many more settlers came to the New World and problems arose.
- Other than fowl and venison, we don't have a record of the other food items that were served; but we do know what was raised at that time and can assume that onions, beans, cabbage, carrots, peas and corn were available. Corn was most likely removed from the cob and pounded into mush. Sometimes this was sweetened with molasses or honey.
- The first Day of Thanksgiving was declared by the Continental Congress in 1777, and in 1789 President George Washington declared a celebration on the fourth Thursday in November; but it wasn't yet an official holiday.
- It wasn't until the middle of the Civil War that President Lincoln made it a federal holiday. In 1863 he felt Americans sitting down together for a meal would promote some unity in a badly divided country. We have celebrated Thanksgiving ever since.