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By Janet Springer

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899)

We are sure all of you have an idea as to the beginnings of Thanksgiving Day as a National Holiday. The date we currently celebrate, the fourth Thursday in each November, was set aside by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. He changed it from the last Thursday in November as set aside by President Abraham Lincoln. We suspect, but do not know that President Lincoln chose a date near to the date of the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts Bay on November 21, 1621 (Gregorian calendar).

However, the Pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving in October. We do not know the exact date. October is the traditional date for The Harvest. usually all the crops have been harvested and the fields made ready for winter. There has been a frost, the trees are in full color. We have seen frost and we are ready to join in the hunt.

Therefore at that time there is an abundance of food and game available for a celebration.

This was true in Plymouth Colony in the year 1621. The people of the Colony had had a very had winter. They had lost many of their number and had been sorely discouraged. They were lucky. They were friendly  with the Natives and had learned to plant the native crops and to hunt the native game and fish the local waters. They had been forced to adapt to a strange and foreign world and had survived.

There are two known contemporary accounts of this "First Thanksgiving". One was written in a letter of Edward Winslow's dated 21 December 1621:

"Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in blossom. 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 fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. 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, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."

Another description was given some twenty years later by Governor Bradford in his famous History of Plymouth Plantation. When this journal was discovered in 1854, having been taken by British looters during the American Revolution a renewed interest in "Thanksgiving" was founded. At this time an interest in turkey became popular. It being one of the fowl of the time of the Pilgrims. Wild turkey were indigenous to the Plymouth Colony area, as were several types of waterfowl, deer and a multitude of fish and shellfish.

 We are not sure what was served at the first Thanksgiving, but it was not the tender butterballs of today surrounded by two varieties of potato, peas, green beans, salads and pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce.

There were turkeys and they would have been very tough. If there was any sugar it would never have been spared to make something sweet like cranberry sauce. Cranberries are very bitter by themselves. They might have been served as dried berries. Indian corn would have been served in a variety of ways, as meal and as unleavened bread. Green vegetables as we know them would have been unfamiliar, as the peas had failed. There would have been an abundance of seafood, clams, lobsters, cod, flounder and mussels. It is hard for us to believe but in the days of the Pilgrims, clams and lobsters were considered trash seafood as they lived on the bottom of the ocean. The venison might have been tender if a young deer and cooked well over the spit. There would have been squash (our pumpkin) and a bean very similar to our string bean.

The main drink would have been beer as the water was usually not considered to be potable. They did have eggs as there were hens and honey from the bees, a bit of butter and some cheese they would have boarded from Holland. The Indians had shown them hot to harvest maple syrup so they might have had some of that to flavor the game.

So, you can see that some of our traditions started in 1621. Some foods are familiar, but would have been served in a very different manner. It is still a tome for family, friends and a time to offer thanks for our blessings. For this we can be forever thankful to our Pilgrim Ancestors.