Winter was fast approaching when the Pilgrims landed near Plymouth Rock on the Massachusetts coast in 1620. Their food supplies quickly depleted, many died during that first hungry season.
In the spring, the surviving settlers received help from local Wampanoag People, who taught them how to plant the native corn, beans and squash. From the Wampanoag the Pilgrims also learned to fish the local waters and hunt native game and wild fowl.
In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims held a three-day feast to celebrate the bounty, both wild and cultivated, that the spring and summer had brought them.
According to Giving Thanks, by Kathleen Curtin and Sandra Oliver of the Plimoth Plantation, a museum and educational organization in Plymouth, MA, the feast took place between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, during the Wampanoag harvest season.
A letter written from the Plymouth Colony by Edward Winslow, notes that many Wampanoag People attended, bringing a number of deer to add to the feast. The letter also states that four hunters from the settlement brought back numerous wildfowl.
Ducks, Geese, Fish and Corn
Plimoth Plantation researchers say wild turkey may have been among these fowl, but more likely the bounty was seasonal waterfowl, including ducks and geese.
Fish and shellfish were plentiful along the Massachusetts coast and probably would have been part of the feast. So, too, would wild vegetables, including wild onions, garlic and watercress, all used by the Wampanoag.
The course, multi-colored corn the English called “Indian corn” would almost surely have been on the menu. The settlers followed the Wampanoag in making this corn a staple crop.
Pumpkins, but no Potatoes
Pumpkins would have been on the menu, too, but not as pie. According to Plimoth Plantation researchers, the colonists lacked the ingredients for pie crust as well as the ovens to cook it. Like squashes, pumpkins were native to the Americas.
Some of today’s most revered thanksgiving foods would have been missing from the Pilgrim’s table.
Potatoes had not yet reached North America when the Pilgrims arrived. Native to South America, potatoes were first introduced to Europe by the Spanish. It would be some time before they became part of the North American diet.
Sweet potatoes, native to the Caribbean region, were also missing from that first Thanksgiving. In the 17th Century, sweet potatoes were still an exotic luxury in Europe, and had yet to make their way to the colonies.
Neither would apples have been available. These non-natives were introduced to North America only later.
Cranberries, though native to New England, weren’t widely used until sugar arrived in colonial North America to make them more palatable.
The Plimoth Plantation notes that the settlers never referred to their feast of 1621 as “Thanksgiving,” though they did give thanks for the bounty. In all likelihood, it was mostly festive, more akin to a harvest festival.
It has, however, become the symbol of thankfulness and bounty that lives in our Thanksgiving celebrations today.