More Fascinating Than Fiction: The True Story of the First Thanksgiving

PLYMOUTH, MA – Americans think they know a lot about the first Thanksgiving, and many imagine it as happy pilgrims wearing big buckles and feasting on huge, fat turkeys. But the facts are actually more fascinating than the fiction.

Take Plymouth Rock for example. Most believe that the large boulder marked “1620,” located just a few feet from the water, is where the pilgrims first landed in the area. But the pilgrims themselves never mentioned that they stepped off their boat onto a rock.

And the person who swore it was a stone and brought it to the attention of other Plymouth residents didn’t bring it up until he was in his 90s, claiming that some of the original pilgrims had told him about it.

Grateful despite the tragedy

As far as verifiable facts go, one thing is certain: these religious reformers began building their first American settlement in the harsh winter of 1620-1621, even though half their number died around them.

But just a few months later, these faithful Christians, who believed in thanking God for everything, were already planning the first American Thanksgiving.

“It was in 1621 after the first season here in Plymouth when they lost half their population and at the end of that season there were only 51 of 102 people left,” said Pilgrim role player Leo Martin CBN News.

In addition to running the religious Jenney Museum in Plymouth, Martin and his wife Nancy dress up as pilgrims and give tours and lectures. Martin is also the author of the book Pilgrims in search of happiness.

Martin said the survivors’ first harvest went well and they knew they wouldn’t starve.

“They grew enough food to last through the next winter, and they thought they should thank God for it,” Martin explained.

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At Plimoth Plantation, where this first Pilgrim settlement is faithfully recreated, top explorer Richard Pickering disguises himself to play the role of Edward Winslow, one of only two Pilgrims to leave a written record of this first Thanksgiving.

I’m pretending to be Winslow, said Pickering CBN News about the preparations for the event.

“The very first festival we held in this area, our governor sent four men to hunt fowl, and in just a few hours the four men were able to capture enough wild fowl to feed our company for a week,” he said. “For we needed a special kind of joy, since the Lord has fed us for a year and brought in such a good harvest.”

“You are a delicious bird”

Plymouth’s annual Thanksgiving parade features occasional floats displaying large, fat turkeys that Americans now imagine being eaten by pilgrims. But in reality, their turkeys were wild, lean and mean.

“They were very thin and could run up to 25 miles per hour,” Martin said. “So it was a challenge to catch one.”

“Winslow” said, “I think the turkeys here in New England are a little different than the ones that live in the dung heaps back home in England. But they are a tough bird.”

Another certain fact: These grateful Englishmen did not eat alone because they knew they could not have done it without the Indians, or sachems as Winslow called them.

The Native Americans showed them what could grow in this completely different soil, unfriendly to English seeds.

These pilgrims could celebrate

“They felt that Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag Indians, was so important to their survival that they should invite Massasoit and his immediate family to this celebration, and they did,” Martin explained.

But Massasoit misunderstood it a little.

“As we celebrated, exercised and trained our weapons, among us was the great Sachem Massasoit and about 90 of his men,” Winslow said.

Martin pointed out that this could have destroyed all of the Pilgrims’ supplies, but the chief and his braves brought plenty of food with them.

“Game, turkey, fish, vegetables — and together they had enough food for a three-day celebration where they honored each other and became better friends,” Martin said.

Norah Messier is Plimoth Plantation’s expert on the food of this time.

“Most likely there was fish on the Thanksgiving table as we now call it, possibly lobster. We know that the natives brought venison with them when they arrived, something not many of us put on our Thanksgiving table today,” she explained.

“Pompion Stew” instead of pumpkin pie

We put pumpkin pie on our tables. Messier did a cooking demonstration for CBN News shows what the pilgrims would have done instead.

“One of the things most people would say is you can’t have Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie,” Messier said.

“What I’m going to do here is exactly what we know they did a lot in New England,” she explained. “The old court dish is called ‘stewed pompion.’ ‘Pompion’ is the contemporary name for the pumpkin.”

***For Pompion stew and other recipes Click here.

She showed how the pilgrims diced this pompom/pumpkin and stewed it into a kind of porridge.

“At the end you just add a splash of vinegar and some ginger,” Messier said. “And supposedly it will taste like apple compote, something that definitely wasn’t on the first Thanksgiving table: there are no apples in New England, not yet.”

They placed great emphasis on filling and the quantity Messier assembled for CBN News comes from a recipe from 1597. It contained breadcrumbs, cranberries, chopped yolks of hard-roasted eggs, butter and raisins.

This filling would have taken a lot more work just because of the raisins.

“Until recently, raisins still contained seeds,” explained Messier. “Imagine picking out all those seeds.”

Bringing Old England to New England

Finally, the cook would have seasoned this stuffing with herbs he brought from England, such as thyme, hyssop and parsley.

“We believe that the things they grew in their kitchen gardens in the 17th century were mainly things that they brought with them from England. They try to take them home,” Messier explained. “They’re trying to make New England seem like old England.”

That’s probably why a man like Winslow would have preferred something better than those skinny, exotic turkeys from New England.

Winslow said with a wink, “In truth, my greatest joy is a goose, for I love its great fatness.”

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*Originally published November 25, 2015.


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