In 1621, Pilgrims held a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest. They invited Wampanoag Indians, and everyone gobbled down turkey and pumpkin pie. It turns out that only some of that is true, according to historians at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Historians now know that there was such a feast that year with Indians (who communicated with the colonists through Squanto, an Indian who had learned English). But the menu didn\’t look like today\’s typical Thanksgiving meal. Deer and fowl were served, but nobody knows if turkey was included. Pumpkin was available, but it is unlikely the colonists turned it into a pie. Sweet potatoes were not known to the colonists, and cranberries may have been served but not as a sauce or relish. As for the feast being the first Thanksgiving, nobody at the time thought of it as the start of a new tradition. There was another feast in the colony in 1623 — but it was held in the summer.
In later years, different colonies celebrated their own days of thanksgiving during the year, but these holidays were quiet, and people often fasted (meaning they didn\’t eat). Americans started eating turkey for Thanksgiving in the mid-1800s. A popular magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale read about the 1621 feast and decided to use it as a model for an annual holiday. She published recipes for turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie and started traditions that had nothing to do with the colonists. That\’s when Americans starting eating those foods on Thanksgiving! The first time Thanksgiving was celebrated nationally was in 1789, when President George Washington declared Thursday, Nov. 26, a holiday. Then in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared that the fourth Thursday of November would be celebrated as Thanksgiving. Every year the president is given a turkey to eat for the holiday, and since 1989, he has pardoned the bird — allowing it to live rather than eat it.
These days, Thanksgiving is all about the foodвfrom the classic turkey to delicious pumpkin pie, Americans look forward to overindulging on favorite foods that we associate with the harvest bounty of 17th-century Massachusetts.
But did they have these beloved Thanksgiving foods at the in 1621? A deeper look reveals that our \”traditional\” Thanksgiving feast may not be as traditional as we think. The Pilgrimsв autumn harvest of 1621 was plentiful. Of course, they owed a lot of that success to their Wampanoag neighbors, who had helped them grow crops and taught them how to survive in the brutal climate of coastal Massachusetts. The harvest festival took three days, during which the Pilgrims and Indians feasted and celebrated. Approximately half of the original settlers died during the first year, and o nly four women remained alive by the fall of 1621, so the meal was likely prepared largely by men.
There would not have been cranberry sauce, though they might have had raw cranberries. There were no mashed potatoes, since the potato didn\’t make its way to North America. There was no pumpkin pieвthey didnвt have a baking oven in Plimoth Plantationвbut there might have been pumpkin served other ways, since both the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag ate pumpkin and other indigenous squashes. On the table would have been local root vegetables like carrots and onions, dried fruits and nuts, venison (provided by the Wampanoag), fish such as bass, and shellfish like mussels and lobster. They might have had corn, though it would have been more of a cornmeal mush, known as samp. great store of Wild turkies, so it is likely that turkey was on the menu at the first Thanksgiving, in addition to other wild fowl such as duck and goose.