How do we know what really happened at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth (in the fall of 1621)? Mostly our knowledge comes from a letter written a couple of months later (December 13, 1621) by pilgrim Edward Winslow (1595-1655).
He describes a harvest festival that occurred not at the end of November but in late September or early October. Interestingly, Winslow does not call it a thanksgiving. He does not mention any turkeys.
What the pilgrims did have were ducks and geese. Winslow tells us that once they had harvested their crops, Governor William Bradford ordered four men to go fowling so that we might rejoice together after a more special manner.
In just a few days, the hunters secured enough ducks and geese to last the entire settlement a week. But what began as an English affair soon became an overwhelmingly native celebration.
Earlier that spring, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit had offered to form an alliance with the pilgrims. That fall, Massasoit arrived in Plymouth with 90 of his people and five freshly killed deer. Instead of the prim and proper sit-down affair of legend, the first Thanksgiving was an outdoor festival. Even if all the pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted or sat as they clustered around fires where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits. Also simmering were pottages, stews into which meat and vegetables were thrown.
Winslow makes no mention of it, but the first Thanksgiving coincided with what was, for the pilgrims, a new and startling phenomena, the turning of the green leaves of summer to the incandescent yellows, reds and purples of a New England autumn.
In Britain, the cloudy fall days and warm nights cause the autumn colors to be muted and lackluster. In New England, on the other hand, the profusion of sunny, fall days and cool, but not freezing, nights unleashes the colors latent within the trees’ leaves. It was a display that must have contributed to the enthusiasm with which Winslow wrote of the festivities that fall.
For me, this is an instance when the historical reality is much more interesting than the myth. Instead of a pious warm-up for a glum Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws, the Plymouth Harvest Festival of 1621 was more like Woodstock, an outdoor celebration that just sort of happened.
Here is the relevant text from Winslow’s letter:
Our corn [i.e. wheat] 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 the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the 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.
William Bradford (1590-1657) had become governor of the colony earlier that spring. He would later write a historical-narrative journal about the early days of Plymouth, recorded between 1630 and 1647. Here’s the relevant section where he looks back to 1621 (and mentions turkey!):
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercising in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
Update: See the TGC podcast on “The Myths of Thanksgiving,” an interview with Tracy McKenzie, chair of the department of history at Wheaton College and author of the forthcoming book The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History (InterVarsity, 2013).