Revealed: The True History of the First Plymouth Colony “Thanksgiving”

The True History of the first Plymouth Colony “Thanksgiving”

As gleaned from historical writings, including what are now grammatical errors.

The Plymouth Colonists were decimated by disease before this feast. Only four married women were alive and available to cook and serve several hundred natives and Europeans. We know which modern dishes were not available in 1621. What was served requires research of written records from the time. The only contemporary description of the event by Edward Winslow tells us that they had seasonal wild fowl and the venison brought by the Wampanoag and presented to key Englishmen. The same writer is eloquent about the bounty of his new home:

“Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night, with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will; all the spring-time the earth sendeth forth naturally very good sallet herbs. Here are grapes, white and red, and very sweet and strong also. Strawberries, gooseberries, raspas, etc. Plums of tree sorts, with black and red, being almost as good as a damson; abundance of roses, white, red, and damask; single, but very sweet indeed… These things I thought good to let you understand, being the truth of things as near as I could experimentally take knowledge of, and that you might on our behalf give God thanks who hath dealt so favorably with us.”

Another source describing the colonial diet that autumn said: “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had … since harvest, Indian corn.”

Though not specifically mentioned as a food on the menu, corn was certainly part of the feasts. The harvest being celebrated was that of the colorful hard flint corn that the English often referred to as “Indian” corn. This corn was a staple for the Wampanoag and soon became a fixture in the cooking pots of New Plymouth. The English had acquired their first seed corn by helping themselves to a cache of corn from a Native storage pit on one of their initial explorations of Cape Cod. (They later paid the owners for this “borrowed” corn.) It is intriguing to imagine how the English colonists processed and prepared the novel corn for the first time in the fall of 1621. One colonist gave a hint of how his countrymen sought to describe and prepare a new grain in familiar, comforting terms: “Our Indian corn, even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meat as rice.” 3 Thus traditional English dishes of porridge, pancakes (and later bread) were adapted to be used with native corn.

In September and October, a variety of both dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from the gardens of New Plymouth is likely to have included what were then called “herbs”: parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried cultivated beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as native cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts. While many elements of the modern holiday menu are very different from the foods eaten in 1621, the bounty of the New England autumn was clearly the basis for both. The impulse to share hospitality with others and celebrate and give thanks for abundance transcends the menu. Edward Winslow’s final comment about the harvest of 1621, is a sentiment shared by many Americans on Thanksgiving Day: “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.” 4

NOTES:

  1. Edward Winslow, “A Letter Sent from New England,” In A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth [Mourt’s Relation], Ed. Dwight B. Heath (New York: Corinth Books, 1963), p. 82.
  2. William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, Ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), p.90.
  3. Winslow, p. 86.
  4. Winslow, p. 82.

Pilgrim Meals & Table Manners

In the time of the pilgrims or the 17th century, the biggest meal of the day was eaten at noon and it was known as ‘dinner’ or simply ‘noon-meat’. Housewives used to spend their mornings cooking this elaborate meal. Suppers used to be a smaller meal that was eaten at the end of the day. Leftovers from noon-meat of the previous day took care of the breakfast in the pilgrim household. According to the custom in colonists’ homes in those days, children and servants used to wait on adults as they sat down to eat. The foods eaten by Wampanoag Indians and the colonists were quite similar to each other but they had very different eating patterns.

Wapanoags used to eat whenever they were hungry and one could find pots cooking in their homes throughout the day. In contrast, colonists had a fixed timetable for eating their meals such as breakfast, dinner and supper. Pilgrims used spoons, knives and fingers to eat but had no had forks. They used to wipe their hands on large cloth napkins that were also used by them to pick up hot morsels of food. On the harvest feast, salt would have been placed on the table to sprinkle on the food as they like but pepper, though it was being used in cooking, has still not made it to the tabletop.

In those days, food was served according to the social standing of a person and the best food and dishes were placed near the most important people in the gathering. People did not get to sample all the dishes on the table but had to eat only what was closest to them. Similarly, the people were not served meals individually and the food was just served onto the table and then people had to pick up the food from the table and eat it. There were no separate courses. All types of foods were placed on the table at the same time and people could choose what they wanted to eat first and what to eat next.

If cranberries were served at the harvest celebration, they appeared in Wampanoag dishes, or possibly to add tartness to an English sauce. It would be 50 years before an Englishman mentioned boiling this New England berry with sugar for a “Sauce to eat with …Meat.” In 1621 England, sugar was expensive; in 1621 New Plymouth, there may not have been any of this imported spice at all.

The earliest written recipes for pumpkin pie came after 1621, and those treated the pumpkin more like apples, slicing it and sometimes frying the slices before placing them in a crust. (There were no apples in 1621 Plymouth. Apples are not native to North America.)

Corn was a staple for the Wampanoag and soon became a fixture in the cooking pots of New Plymouth. The English acquired their first seed corn by helping themselves to a cache of corn from a Native storage pit on one of their initial explorations of Cape Cod. (They later paid the owners for this “borrowed” corn.) It is intriguing to imagine how the English colonists processed and prepared the novel corn for the first time in the fall of 1621. One colonist gave a hint of how his countrymen sought to describe and prepare a new grain in familiar, comforting terms: “Our Indian corn, even the coarsest, maketh as pleasant a meat as rice.”3 In other words, traditional English dishes of porridge and pancakes (and later bread) were adapted to be used with native corn.

In September and October, a variety of both dried and fresh vegetables were available. The produce from the gardens of New Plymouth is likely to have included what were then called “herbs:” parsnips, collards, carrots, parsley, turnips, spinach, cabbages, sage, thyme, marjoram and onions. Dried cultivated beans and dried wild blueberries may have been available as well as native cranberries, pumpkins, grapes and nuts. While many elements of the modern holiday menu are very different from the foods eaten in 1621, the bounty of the New England autumn was clearly the basis for both. The impulse to share hospitality with others and celebrate and give thanks for abundance transcends the menu. Edward Winslow’s final comment about the harvest of 1621, is a sentiment shared by many Americans on Thanksgiving Day: “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.” 4

The Mayflower’s Bill of Lading

Beside her human freight of one hundred and thirty or more passengers and crew, the lading of the MAY-FLOWER when she sailed from Plymouth (England), September 6/16, 1620, was considerable and various. If clearing at a custom-house of today her manifest would excite interest and surprise. Taking no account of the ship’s stores and supplies (necessarily large, like her crew, when bound upon such a voyage, when every possible need till her return to her home port must be provided for before sailing), the colonists’ goods and chattels were many, their provisions bulky, their ordnance, arms, and stores (in the hold) heavy, and their trading-stock fairly ample. Much of the cargo originally stowed in the Speedwell, a part, as we know, of her company, and a few of her crew were transferred to the Mayflower at Plymouth. There is no doubt that the ship was crowded and overladen.

It’s probable that the crowded condition of her spar and main decks caused the supply of livestock taken–whether for consumption upon the voyage or for the planters’ needs on shore–was very limited as to both number and variety. No cattle (not even milk,” milch-cows”) were taken, but if–as is not unlikely—it was at first proposed to take a cow or two (when both ships were to go and larger space was available), this intent was undoubtedly abandoned at Plymouth, England, when it became evident that there would be little room even for passengers, none whatever for cattle or their fodder (a large and prohibitive quantity of the latter being required for so long a voyage), and that the lateness of the season and its probable hardships would endanger the lives of the animals if taken. So far as appears the only domestic live-stock aboard the MAY-FLOWER consisted of goats, swine, poultry, and dogs. It is quite possible that some few sheep, rabbits, and poultry for immediate consumption (these requiring but little forage) may have been shipped, this being customary then as now. It is also probable that some household pets–cats and caged singing-birds, the latter always numerous in both England and Holland–were carried on board by their owners, though no direct evidence of the fact is found. There is ample proof that goats, swine, poultry, and dogs were landed with the colonists at New Plymouth, and it is equally certain that they had at first neither cattle, horses, nor sheep. Of course the she-goats were their sole reliance for milk for some time, whether afloat or ashore, and goat’s flesh and pork their only possibilities in the way of fresh meat for many months, save poultry (and game after landing), though we may be sure, in view of the breeding value of their goats, poultry, and swine, few were consumed for food. The “fresh meat” mentioned as placed before Massasoit on his first visit was probably venison, though possibly kid’s meat, pork, or poultry. Of swine and poultry they must have had a pretty fair supply, judging from their rapid increase, though their goats must have been few. They were wholly without beasts of draft or burden (though it seems strange that a few Spanish donkeys or English “jacks” had not been taken along, as being easily kept, hardy, and strong, and quite equal to light ploughing, hauling, carrying, etc.), and their lack was sorely felt. The space they and their forage demanded it was doubtless considered impracticable to spare. The only dogs that appear in evidence are a large mastiff bitch (the only dog of that breed probably seen on these shores since Pring’s “bigge dogges” so frightened the Indians’ in this region seventeen years before)

The goats, swine, rabbits, and poultry were doubtless penned on the spar-deck forward, while possibly some poultry, and any sheep brought for food, may have been temporarily housed–as was a practice with early voyagers—in the (unused) ship’s boats, though these appear to have been so few in number and so much in demand that it is doubtful if they were here available as animal pens.

The food supply of the Pilgrims, constituting part of the MAY-FLOWER’S Cargo, included, as appears from authentic sources:–

Breadstuff’s, including,–
Biscuits or ship-bread (in barrels).
Oatmeal (in barrels or hogsheads).
Rye meal (in hogsheads).
Butter (in firkins).
Cheese, “Hollands” and English (in boxes).
Eggs, pickled (in tubs).
Fish, “haberdyne” [or salt dried cod] (in boxes).
Smoked herring (in boxes).
Meats, including,–
Dry-salted (in barrels).
Smoked (in sacks).
Dried neats’-tongues (in boxes).
Pork, bacon, smoked (in sacks or boxes).
Salt [” corned “] (in barrels).
Hams and shoulders, smoked (in canvas sacks or hogsheads).
Salt (in bags and barrels).
Vegetables, including,–
Beans (in bags and barrels).
Cabbages (in sacks and barrels).
Onions (in sacks).
Turnips (in sacks).
Parsnips (in sacks).
Pease (in barrels), and
Vinegar (in hogsheads), while,–
Beer (in casks), brandy, “aqua vitae” (in pipes), and gin [“Hollands,”
“strong waters,” or “schnapps”] (in pipes) were no small or
unimportant part, from any point of view, of the provision supply.

Winslow, in his letter to George Morton advising him as to his preparations for the voyage over, says: “Be careful to have a very good bread-room to keep your biscuit in.” This was to keep them from dampness. Winthrop gives us the memorandum of his order for the ship-bread for his voyage in 1630. He says: “Agreed with Keene of Southwark, baker, for 20,000 of Biscuit, 15,000 of brown, and 5,000 of white.”
Captain Beecher minutes: “10 M. of bread for the ship ARBELLA.”
Beecher’s memorandum of “oatmeal” is “30 bushels.” Winslow mentions “oatmeal,” and Winthrop notes among the provisions bought by Captain William Pierce, “4 hhds. of oatmeal.” Rye meal was usually meant by the term “meal,” and Window in his letter to George Morton advises him: “Let your meal be so hard-trod in your casks that you shall need an adz or hatchet to work it out with;” and also to “be careful to come by [be able to get at] some of your meal to spend [use] by the way.” Notwithstanding that Bradford’ speaks of their “selling away” some “60 firkins of butter,” to clear port charges at Southampton, and the leaders, in their letter to the Adventurers from that port (August 3), speak of themselves, when leaving Southampton in August, 1620, as “scarce having any butter,” there seems to have been some left to give as a present to Quadrequina, Massasoit’s brother, the last of March following, which would indicate its good “keeping” qualities. Wood, in his “New England’s Prospect” (ch. 2), says: “Their butter and cheese were corrupted.” Bradford mentions that their lunch on the exploration expedition of November 15, on Cape Cod, included “Hollands cheese,” which receives also other mention. There is a single mention, in the literature of the day, of eggs preserved in salt, for use on shipboard. “Haberdyne” (or dried salt cod) seems to have been a favorite and staple article of diet aboard ship. Captain Beecher minutes “600 haberdyne for the ship ARBELLA.”
Wood says: “Their fish was rotten.” Smoked “red-herring” were familiar food to all the MAY-FLOWER company. No house or ship of England or Holland in that day but made great dependence upon them. Bacon was, of course, a main staple at sea. In its half-cooked state as it came from the smoke-house it was much relished with their biscuit by seamen and
others wishing strong food, and when fried it became a desirable article of food to all except the sick. Mention is made of it by several of the early Pilgrim writers. Carlyle, as quoted, speaks of it as a diet-staple on the MAY-FLOWER. Salt (“corned”) beef has always been a main article of food with seamen everywhere. Wood’ states that the “beef” of the Pilgrims was “tainted.” In some way it was made the basis of a reputedly palatable preparation called “spiced beef,” mentioned as prepared by one of the sailors for a shipmate dying on the MAY-FLOWER in Plymouth harbor. It must have been a very different article from that we now find so acceptable under that name in England. Winthrop’ gives the price of his beef at “19 shillings per cwt.” Winslow advises his friend Morton, in the letter so often quoted, not to have his beef “dry-salted,” saying, “none can do it better than the sailors,” which is a suggestion not readily understood. “Smoked” beef was practically the same as that known as “jerked,” “smoked,” or “dried” beef in America. A “dried neat’s-tongue” is named as a contribution of the Pilgrims to the dinner for Captain Jones and his men on February 21, 1621, when they had helped to draw up and mount the cannon upon the platform on the hill at Plymouth. Winthrop paid “14d. a piece” for his “neats’ tongues.” The pork of the Pilgrims is also said by Wood’ to have been “tainted.” Winthrop states that his pork cost “20 pence the stone” (14 lbs.).

Hams seem to have been then, as now, a highly-prized article of diet.

Goodwin mentions that the salt used by the Pilgrims was (evaporated) “sea-salt” and very “impure.” Winthrop mentions among his supplies, “White, Spanish, and Bay salt.”

The beans of the Pilgrims were probably of the variety then known as “Spanish beans.” The cabbages were apparently boiled with meat, as nowadays, and also used considerably for “sour-krout” and for pickling, with which the Leyden people had doubtless become familiar during their residence among the Dutch. As anti-scorbutics (scurvy) they were of much value. The same was true of onions, whether pickled, salted, raw, or boiled.
Turnips and parsnips find frequent mention in the early literature of the first settlers, and were among their stock vegetables. Pease were evidently staple articles of food with the Plymouth people, and are frequently named. They probably were chiefly used for porridge and puddings, and were used in large quantities, both afloat and ashore.

Vinegar in hogsheads was named on the food-list of every ship of the Pilgrim era. It was one of their best antiscorbutics, and was of course a prime factor in their use of “sour krout,” pickling, etc. The fruits natural, dried, and preserved, were probably, in that day, in small supply. Apples, limes, lemons, prunes, olives, rice, etc., were among the luxuries of a voyage, while dried or preserved fruits and small fruits were not yet in common use. Winslow, in the letter cited, urges that “your casks for beer . . . be iron bound, at least for the first [end] tyre” [hoop]. Cushman states that they had ample supplies of beer offered them both in Kent and Amsterdam. The planters’ supply seems to have failed, however, soon after the company landed, and they were obliged to rely upon the whim of the Captain of the MAY-FLOWER for their needs, the ship’s supply being apparently separate from that of the planters, and lasting longer. Winthrop’s supply seems to have been large (“42 tons”–probably tuns intended). It was evidently a stipulation of the charter-party that the ship should, in part at least, provision her crew for the voyage,–certainly furnish their beer. This is rendered certain by Bradford’s difficulty (as stated by himself) with Captain Jones, previously referred to, showing that the ship had her own supply of beer, separate from that of the colonists, and that it was intended for the seamen as well as the officers.

Footnote to History:

The Plymouth colonists did not bring garlic with them. Superstitions in Great Britain labeled this nutritional and culinary essential as demonic because of its aroma, reminiscent for them of sulfur and brimstone. Oregano, a common herb in Mediterranean areas, is also not mentioned. Both garlic and oregano have anti-viral properties. It is believed that more of the colonists might have lived, if these two vegetables had been part of their diet.