Feasting and Saber Rattling at the First Thanksgiving

by Roger Alford

We have certain images in our minds about that first Thanksgiving. It usually involves bountiful harvests, amicable relations with the Indians, and prayerful thanksgiving to Providence for his manifold blessings.

Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. Although there are various versions of the “first Thanksgiving,” one event that has a strong claim to it occurred at Plymouth, Massachusetts in the fall of 1621. Unlike subsequent harvest celebrations (particularly the other “first Thanksgiving” in the summer of 1623), this “first Thanksgiving” had as much to do with a display of force to the Indians as it did grateful hearts to God. Those new immigrants were thankful to God and fearful of neighbor. So what better way to address both concerns than a celebratory display of feasting and saber rattling.

Here is how historian Diana Karter Appelbaum describes it in her book Thanksgiving: An American Holiday, An American History:

Landing at Plymouth in December 1620, the Pilgrims faced winter without an adequate food supply, sheltered from the elements only by such dwellings as they could build quickly. Unseen, dreaded Indians lurked in the woods, their intentions unknown. Faith and prayer sustianed the pious settlers–their first act upon setting foot on dry land was to kneel and pray. Records of the settlement are punctuated by notations of recurrent occasions when “solemne thanks and praise” were offered.

Only 55 of the 102 immigrants lived through that first winter, but when spring came, all 55 committed themselves to life in the New World and resolutely watched the Mayflower sail back to England without passengers. Tisquantum, an Indian of the Wampanoag tribe who had once been carried off by fishermen to England, where he learned to speak the settlers’ tongue, befriended the colonists. They called him Squanto, and under his direction the colonists learned how to plant New World crops of corn and squahs, where to catch fish and how to hunt. Squanto also served as negotiator and interpreter, helping to conclude a treaty that kept the peace for 50 years between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag sachem, Massasoit.

The first autumn, an ample harvest insured that the colony would have food for the winter months. Governor Bradford, with one eye on the divine Providence, proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to God, and with the other eye on the local political situation, extended an invitation to neighboring Indians to share in the harvest feast. In order to guarantee that the feast served to cement a peaceful relationship, the three-day long meal was punctuated by displays of the power of English muskets for the benefit of suitably impressed Indian guests.

This “first Thanksgiving” was a feast called to suit the needs of the hour, which were to celebrate the harvest, thank the Lord for His goodness, and regale and impress the Indians. We have Edward Winslow’s testimony that the feast was a success:

Our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men fowling, so that we might after a more special manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time among other Recreations we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere which they brought to the Plantacion and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others.

… They worked with the resources at hand, and although they successfully fed the hungry men, the feast bore little resemblance to the modern Thanksgiving dinner. Partridges, ducks, geese, and turkeys could be shot along the shores of Cape Cod Bay in the fall, and it may be that those who went a-fowling brought back some of each to be roasted or stewed. Although there is no proof that turkey was eaten at Plymouth that day, it is certain that there was venison and equally certain that some items were missing. There was no apple cider, no milk, butter or cheese (no cows had been aboard the Mayflower), and no bread–stores of flour from the ship had long since been exhausted and years would pass before significant quantitaties of wheat were successfully cultivated in New England.

What they did have were pumpkins and corn; these grew abundantly, and colonists ate them until they were cordially tired of both. With no flour and no molasses, there was no pumpkin pie, but there was plain, boiled pumpkin to eat. Corn was more versatile. It was boiled as “hasty pudding,” kneaded into ersatz bread and fried in cakes. Cranberries may have been boiled for a honey to sweeten the sour, red berries. Nine little girls and 15 boys were in the company, and they, or some of the hunters, may have gathered other wild fruits or nuts. Oysters, clams and fish rounded out the abundant, but far from epicurean, feast that the celebrators would have been more likely to call a “harvest home” than a “thanksgiving” celebration.

Thanksgivings were holy days of solemn prayer in the Puritan lexicon, days akin to sabbaths and fast days on which “Recreations” and “exercising Armes” would not have been countenanced. Had the governor proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God, Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrim Fathers, would have written about the religious services the settlers held. Thus this feast was more harvest celebration than prayerful day of thanksgiving.

Hope you have a wonderful day of thanksgiving, fowling, and recreation. Presumably you will have no need to exercise arms to suitably impress the neighbors.

(Republished from previous post)

http://opiniojuris.org/2011/11/24/feasting-and-saber-rattling-at-the-first-thanksgiving/

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