|The following is reprinted
Best of The Best of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.
First Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, via Library
It's one of American history's most familiar scenes: A small group of
Pilgrims prepare a huge November feast to give thanks for a bountiful
harvest and show their appreciation to the Indians who helped them survive
their first winter. Together, the Pilgrims and the Indians solemnly sit
down to a meal of turkey, pumpkin pie, and cranberries.
Just how accurate is this image of America's first Thanksgiving? Not
very, it turns out. Here are some common misconceptions about the origin
of one of our favorite holidays.
MYTH: The settlers at the first Thanksgiving were called Pilgrims.
THE TRUTH: They didn't even refer to themselves as Pilgrims
- they called themselves "Saints." Early Americans applied the
term "pilgrim" to all of the early colonists; it wasn't
until the 20th century that it was used exclusively to describe the folks
who landed on Plymouth Rock.
MYTH: It was a solemn, religious occasion.
THE TRUTH: Hardly. It was a three-day harvest festival that included
drinking, gambling, athletic games, and even target shooting with English
muskets (which, by the way, was intended as a friendly warning to the
Indians that the Pilgrims were prepared to defend themselves.)
MYTH: It took place in November.
THE TRUTH: It was some time between late September and the middle
of October - after the harvest had been brought in. By November, said
historian Richard Erhlich, "the villagers were working to prepare
for winter, salting and drying meat and making their houses as wind resistant
MYTH: The Pilgrims wore large hats with buckles on them.
THE TRUTH: None of the participants were dressed anything like
the way they've been portrayed in art: the Pilgrims didn't dress in black,
didn't wear buckles on their hats or shoes, and didn't wear tall hats.
The 19th-century artists who painted them that way did so because they
associated black clothing and buckles with being old-fashioned.
MYTH: They ate turkey ...
THE TRUTH: The Pilgrims ate deer, not turkey. As Pilgrim
Edward Winslow later wrote, "For three days we entertained and feasted,
and [the Indian] went out and killd five deer, which they brought to the
plantation." Winslow does mention that four Pilgrims went "fowling"
or bird hunting, but neither he nor anyone else recorded which kinds
of birds they actually hunted - so even if they did eat turkey, it was
just a side dish.
"The flashy part of the meal for the colonists was the venison,
because it was new to them," says Carolyn Travers, director of research
at Plimoth Plantation, a Pilgrim museum in Massachusetts. "Back in
England, deer were on estates and people would be arrested for poaching
if they killed these deer ... The colonists mentioned venison over and
over again in their letters back home."
Other foods that may have been on the menu: cod, bass, clams, oysters,
Indian corn, native berries and plums, all washed down with water, beer
made from corn, and another drink the Pilgrim affectionately called "strong
A few things definitely weren't on the menu, including pumpkin
pie - in those days, the Pilgrims boiled their pumpkin and ate it plain.
And since the Pilgrims didn't yet have flour mills or cattle, there was
no bread other than corn bread, and no beef, milk, or cheese. And the
Pilgrims didn't eat any New England lobsters, either. Reason: They mistook
them for large insects.
MYTH: The Pilgrims held a similar feast every year.
THE TRUTH: There's no evidence that the Pilgrims celebrated
again in 1622. They probably weren't in the mood - the harvest had been
disappointing, and they were burdened with a new boatload of Pilgrims
who had to be fed and housed through the winter.