The concept of giving thanks, especially for successful harvests and military victories, has a long history and spans many countries and cultures. But, as elementary school children in the United States, many of us learned about the celebratory feast enjoyed by pilgrims and Native Americans at the first “Thanksgiving.” 

This picture is a simplistic view. The truth, as is so often the case, is much more complicated.

The settlers at Plymouth, after arriving on the Mayflower, had endured a long, hard winter. Then, with substantial help from local Native tribe members, the pilgrims managed to eke out a bountiful harvest the following fall in 1621. They then did what would have come naturally from their cultures of origin: held a feast.

An article about that 1621 celebration from History.com states: “Now remembered as America’s ‘first Thanksgiving’ – although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time – the festival lasted for three days.”

The Food

The menu for this celebration was probably a far cry from what is offered at contemporary gatherings; there may have been turkey, but the certainty of its place on the first Thanksgiving table is lost to history. According to History.com, wild turkey was abundant, and there was almost certainly some type of wild fowl, but it also could have been duck, goose or even swan.

The colonists were celebrating a successful corn harvest, so corn was likely included, although it would have been in the form of cornmeal, eaten as a mush. Seafood, another deviation from most current menus, would have been abundant. They ate vegetables, such as pumpkins, and berries they gathered in the area. 

Perhaps the most divergent (and disappointing) aspect of the 17th century menu was that neither potatoes, sweet or otherwise, nor any kind of dessert would have been on the menu. Potatoes weren’t yet popular enough in Europe when the pilgrims left, and hadn’t yet made it to North America. The settlers also would have long-since depleted their supply of sugar and they didn’t have an oven to make desserts.

A delicacy that is well-documented at the first Thanksgiving celebration was venison, in the form of five deer, delivered by members of the Wampanoag tribe.

Pilgrims and Natives 

This brings us back to the peaceful picture of hundreds of European settlers celebrating with their new Native friends. There are some potential inconsistencies with this take on the feast.

In a 2017 article for The New York Times, staff writer Maya Salam points out that we don’t have a written record of an invitation from the pilgrims to the local Native tribes.  

“The truth of how they all ended up feasting together is unknown,” she writes. But they did all attend and demonstrated a not-often-repeated peaceful gathering.

And there were far fewer pilgrims at this party than might be expected. Remembering that harsh winter they had endured meant the women didn’t fare well. In a History.com article by Sarah Pruitt, she explains that there were only about 50 pilgrims left: 22 men, just four married women, and more than 25 children and teenagers.

“The Plymouth colonists were likely outnumbered more than two-to-one at the event by their Native American counterparts,” writes Pruitt.

Regardless of the numbers, the menu, how the participants got there, or whether this was the true “first Thanksgiving,” according to Salam, this “celebration was an exceptional cross-cultural moment with food, games and prayer.”