Colonial American History Stories – 1665 – 1753
Chapter title – September 21, 1621 – The Earliest Possible Date for the First Thanksgiving Day
September 21, 1621 – The Earliest Possible Date for the First Thanksgiving Day
Thanksgiving feasts were a common practice for the European settlers and their native neighbors. It was tradition for the Europeans to set aside days of thanksgiving. They celebrated for a bountiful harvest, drought-ending rains or other providential events. These events did not have any connection with their worship service. They were set during week and commonly involved fasting beforehand. After the fasting, they would have one or several days of celebratory feasting. The Indians had similar traditions. They had thanksgiving celebrations sporadically throughout the year for special events. Thus, both peoples had traditions of this type of celebration.
After establishing “Plimouth Plantation,” the colonists had endured a long and difficult time. Food shortages, disease and privation had taken their toll. The cemetery contained the remains of many who did not survive the dark period. The summer had proved good and the fall harvest bountiful. Therefore, the colonists declared that they would celebrate a thanksgiving feast after the harvest.
One of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, provides the only account we have of this feast,
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits 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 90 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.”
Much of the modern menu for Thanksgiving Day would not have been present. The potato, introduced into England in 1577, was still not popular. The New World English settlers would not have brought it with them. There was no butter, sugar or flour to make pie. Pumpkins were probably on the menu. However, these they roasted whole over coals, stuffed with milk, honey and spices made into custard. The Pilgrims had not even had time to construct baking ovens, yet. No one would make use of cranberry relishes for another fifty years. They would have had cranberries, but not the way we have them now. They would have roasted turkey and other fowl like duck, goose and swans. The meal also probably included native fruits like blueberries, plums, grapes and gooseberries. Vegetables included the onions, beans, lettuce, spinach, cabbage and carrots grown in their gardens. The natives brought five deer, as related by Edward Winslow. They probably roasted them over a slow burning fire.
The Traditional Thanksgiving
Americans trace their traditional Thanksgiving Day feast back to this event in 1621. There were certainly more thanksgiving day events after this time. Historians do not know the exact date it occurred. They think it most likely occurred during the September 21 thorough November 9 period in 1621. By that time, most of the crops had been harvested and the harsh winter had not yet begun.
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