November 25, 2009

Facts Not Fiction: The First Thanksgiving Celebration

The time has come for cranberry sauce, stuffing and a lot of turkeys to meet their ultimate demise at the hands of millions of feasters. I personally dislike the holiday of Thanksgiving. The idea of giving thanks has been overshadowed by cooking and entertainment stress as well as eating so excessively that we feel we will “explode.” We can never give too much thanks. There is so much to be thankful for that it is silly that we pile it on one day a year. In the 1620s, Puritan days of thanksgiving were observed by—fasting! Fasting, while the exact opposite of what is done today, really would peel away the festivities to the heart of the celebration—to give thanks. We are all eternally indebted for everything we’ve been gifted. This year at thanksgiving, give true, heartfelt thanks.

Enough about today’s celebrations, what really happened at that “first thanksgiving” that we learned about as children? The story has been embellished and euphemized for so long that most of us have no idea what really happened or if it even really happened—it did!

When was the first Thanksgiving celebration? 
  • The first Thanksgiving celebration (Pilgrims and Native Americans) occurred in the autumn of 1621. 
 Who was there? 
  • About 65 “Pilgrims” from Holland, settled in Plymouth Colony and about 90 Native Americans with their chief, Massasoit from the Wamponoag village.
What was eaten at the first thanksgiving celebration?
  • Deer, Fowl, Corn, Eels, Muscles, Cod, Bass, Wild Turkey, and Wine are the only things listed officially. Turkey was only listed in the 1630s, about 9 years after the celebration.
How long was the celebration?
  • Three days of celebration and entertainment, although it is said that the “Pilgrims” killed enough fowl on their hunt to feed the town for a week. They did not eat for three days straight but had decent meals throughout the days along with other festivities such as music and games.
How do we know this?
  • There are only two written primary documents from “Pilgrims” that mention a good harvest feast in which around ninety Native Americans attended. Only one of them was written at the time of the feast, the other was a few years later. Both sources amount to about a paragraph each.
  • The first source is "Mourt's relation or journal of the plantation at Plymouth"  By William Bradford and Edward Winslow (1622) Reprint (1865).
  • The second source is Of Plimoth Plantation By William Bradford ( c. 1630) Reprint (1904).

     Thanksgiving as a National Holiday:
       George Washington suggested a day of thanksgiving in 1789 but it didn’t catch on. Thomas Jefferson deplored the idea. It was the efforts of Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale (of Godey’s Lady’s Book) who popularized the idea in her writings for 40 years before Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November would be an annual Thanksgiving celebration and was the first president to “pardon a turkey.”
              Most of our Thanksgiving traditions come from the Civil War period and a little before. Period soldiers' letters talk of how they missed cranberry sauce, turkey and dinner with the family. Turkey was said to be plentiful in New England and could have possibly been eaten at the First Thanksgiving. There are plenty of recipes for cooking it from that time period, but no "Pilgrims" mentioned it at the time. Cranberry sauce was certainly not on the menu for the Pilgrims (although the Native Americans ate cranberries in general.) The word "cranberry" does not even appear in print until the late 1700s and cranberry sauce recipes only started to surface in the 1840s. During the siege of Petersburg in 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant thought it was such a necessary part of the thanksgiving celebration, that he had it ordered for his troops-- something unheard of after three years of war food shortages. 

    A Recipe from Mrs.Sarah Josepha Buell Hale from Mrs. Hale's New Cook Book (1857.):

    "Cranberry Sauce-- This sauce is very simply made. A quart of cranberries are washed and stewed with sufficient water to cover them; when they burst mix them with a pound of brown sugar and stir them well. Before you have removed them from the fire, all the berries should have burst. When cold they will be jellied, and if thrown in a form while warm, will turn out whole," (252.)

    *Note, Image 1: "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe.  Image 2:  Engraving, Library of Congress

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