Turkey day, how about venison, lobster?

  • Published
  • By Steve Larsen
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Historian
We Americans love traditions. We cherish heritage and often mix it with history, when the two are very different things.

Heritage is usually full of myth and legend rather than historical fact.

Why bring that up? On the fourth Thursday of November, Americans take part in one of their most beloved traditions, the celebration of Thanksgiving.

We know the tradition; we have turkey with stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries, pumpkin pie and parades.

We associate this annual rite with a group of English colonists who established a colony then called Plimoth Plantation in 1620, presently Plymouth Mass. We mark a festival that occurred in 1621 the following year as the "First Thanksgiving."

What exactly happened that autumn of 387 years ago? Well, it certainly did not include Snoopy floating his way to Herald Square, and it in all likelihood, did not include turkey either. In fact, the people who were there did not consider it a thanksgiving at all.

The source evidence about this event is extremely sparse. As to the types of foods the pilgrims consumed at the first Thanksgiving, we only have one source at our disposal. A letter written by colonist Edward Winslow in December of 1621 in which he described the three-day festival.

"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, among 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 upon 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."

We learn a couple of things from this short paragraph.

First, venison was a major portion of the meat consumed because King Massasoit and his Pokanoket warriors brought in five deer. Birds were also a large part of the fare since Winslow writes four men shot a week's worth of birds. What one might like to know is what kind of fowl? Food historian, Kathleen Curtin, noted they were likely seasonal waterfowl, specifically ducks and geese. The Separatists certainly ate wild turkeys, and while it is possible they were part of the fare, Winslow never indicated their presence. Likewise, pumpkins did not enter the diet of the English until the end of the century and potatoes were not widely consumed and not grown by the natives or the Separatists.

Two other primary accounts provide an insight to the Separatists' diet, William Bradford's Of Plimouth Plantation and Mourt's Relation, a combination of separate writings of both colonists Bradford and Winslow. They detail the large amount of seafood the Separatists consumed to include herring, striped bass and clams and mussels. Winslow referenced large quantities of lobster and, specifically in the month of September that they, "can take a hogshead of eels in a night." Ready for your Thanksgiving eel? Eel was then, and is now, still a staple of English cuisine.

The second major clue as to the festival's events is specific reference to "recreations" and the fact the men "exercised their arms," which indicated target shooting for sport. Winslow also indicated that the Pokanoket observed closely at the least or, more likely, joined in. One now knows entertainment was part of the festivities. Not quite football and parades, but for 17th century colonists and their Native American allies, target shooting would have been just as entertaining. This social event celebrated by the Separatists and Pokanoket was more a traditional, secular festival rooted into the European fabric since the Medieval Period.

Whatever this festival was, it was not something Separatists would have called a thanksgiving.

The Separatists marked only three holy days in their spiritual life; their weekly Sabbath, which took place on Sundays, a "Day of Humiliation" and a "Day of Thanksgiving." The last two were not set days and could occur multiple times a year.

The Day of Thanksgiving in fact did not involve feasting at all, but long church services that commonly lasted for several hours. A Day of Thanksgiving was usually declared after receiving what they perceived as positive, divine intervention following a Day of Humiliation. These early settlers were a deeply religious people, and they would never combine festivities and games with their spiritual lives.

So where did our Thanksgiving holiday come from? As with any naturally developed tradition, it derived from multiple sources.

The Pilgrims' first and only harvest festival of 1621 obviously played a big part in our modern tradition. So did the standard Puritan religious practice of declaring thanksgivings for acts they saw as a divine. Over the centuries, these evolved into a distinctly American tradition born of Englishmen.

We did not have an actual national holiday for thanksgiving until President Lincoln by executive order established the fourth Thursday in November as an annual national Thanksgiving holiday in 1863 more than 240 years after that three-day festival in Plimoth.