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First Thanksgiving Menu, and History

by: douglas v. gibbs | published: 11 27, 2011

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In the last meeting of the Constitution Class I lead in Temecula, California on Thursday night at Faith Armory, one of the students asked me about the original menu for the first Thanksgiving. I told them that the items were very different than what we have on the table today. Turkey was not an item, but there was a collection of other birds. The corn, not originally an item liked by the colonists, was off the cob, ground down into a mush, and made into bread that resembled pita bread. There was plenty of fish on the menu as well being feasted on. It was a three day banquet, and it was a celebration of survival as a result of good harvests, and capitalism.

The Pilgrims were religious separatists who wound up landing way north of their intended target. Many believe, since they were separatists, the Pilgrims from Plymouth, England navigated north of their intended target on purpose.

The reason for the Pilgrim's journey to America was to seek religious freedom. They were persecuted in England as the King made it law that everyone be a member of the Church of England. To escape the tyranny, they braved a treacherous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean that lasted 66 days.

The Pilgrims established a village using a communal system that used a central dispensary for food, and other items. The colonists were expected to work for the good of the community, placing into the central store all of their labors, and taking from it as needed. As Christians, they felt they could trust each other to put forth a good effort, and to be honest about what they took from the central stores for survival. The first winter was brutal, and most of the colonists remained on board the ship. More than half of the new colonists died from exposure, scurvy, and outbreaks of contagious disease. Less than half of the original colonists survived that first winter.

Of the Mayflower’s original travelers that survived through that winter, life was difficult. They were sick, hungry, and psychologically devastated. In the Spring, the colonists all moved ashore, and continued to maintain their collectivist system of communal living.

Days passed, and the Pilgrims were greeted, in English, by an Abenaki Indian. Several days later, as the story goes, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of thePawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition.

Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to grow corn, extract and use sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. Through the process, with Squanto's guidance, the colonists also formed an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe. The friendship lasted more than fifty years, and is a shining example of how the colonists and the Indians attempted to live in harmony in the New World.

Starvation continued to rampage through the colony because under the communal system not all settlers were putting forth their best effort, and were taking more than they put into the stores. Those that did work hard were angry because they were expected to, through their labors, carry the entire colony. Unrest was breaking out, and the colony knew that if they did not do something about their situation fast, the colony would not survive.

A new system was devised that gave each Pilgrim a parcel of land. They were told this land belonged to them, and they could work the land as they pleased. The settlers would keep all that they produced, and could bring any excess to market to trade with other settlers for goods they desired.

The Pilgrims’ first corn harvest proved successful, and as a result of changing their system to a more capitalistic system based on personal incentive, personal responsibility, and self-sufficiency, the colony was not only prospering, but their food was bountiful. In fact, they had so much food, they were beginning to even trade with the Indians.

Governor William Bradford, wishing to give thanks to the Lord for their good fortune, organized a celebratory feast and invited their Indian allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The festival lasted for three days, and based on writings from the time period the menu is believed to have been rich in fowl and fish.

On the menu was a lot of fish (most likely cod), clams, lobsters, eels, five deer brought by the Indians, ducks, geese, and probably not a single turkey. Pumpkin may have been on the menu, along with various berries. The Indians made a stewed mix of corn, roots, beans, squash and various meats called sobaheg. On the table were also onions, turnips, and greens from spinach to chard.

Many of the menu items, it is suggested, were also prepared with traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. Because the Pilgrims had no oven and the Mayflower’s sugar supply had dwindled, the meal did not feature pies, sweet cakes, or other desserts. Because of the culture, it is also possible that the women did not participate.

In 1623, after a long drought that threatened the year's harvest, and yet still a bounty encouraged by their "keep what you produce" capitalistic system, Governor Bradford once again called for a feast for the purpose of giving thanks for the survival and prosperity of the colony.

As the years progressed, a thanksgiving feast on an annual or occasional basis became common practice in other New England settlements. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress designated one or more days of thanksgiving a year, and in 1789 George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation. He called upon Americans to express their gratitude and give thanks to God our Lord for the happy conclusion to the country’s war of independence and the successful ratification of the U.S. Constitution. His successors John Adams and James Madison also designated days of thanks during their presidencies.

In 1817, New York officially adopted an annual Thanksgiving holiday.

In 1827, noted magazine editor and prolific writer Sarah Josepha Hale, known for her nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb," began to campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Hale published numerous editorials and sent scores of letters to governors, senators, presidents and other politicians over a period of about thirty-six years. In 1863 at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln heard her cry, and issued a proclamation entreating all Americans to ask God to "commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife" and to "heal the wounds of the nation." He scheduled Thanksgiving for the final Thursday in November, and it was celebrated on that day every year until 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in an attempt to spur retail sales during the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s plan was met with passionate opposition determined to keep with tradition, and in 1941 the president reluctantly signed a bill making Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November.

Though turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberries (cranberry sauce), and pies were not on that original menu, over the passing of time these have become the traditional menu items of Thanksgiving. The true essence of Thanksgiving, however, is not the meal. This unique American holiday was, and still is, a day for all of us to give thanks for our blessings, and for the difficulties we have endured that have made us stronger and wiser. And the story I have given you may not have been technically the "first Thanksgiving," for throughout the colonies there were ceremonies of thanks that predate the Pilgrims' celebration.

Despite the tales of a bloody relationship between the Indians and the settlers, which did exist to some extent, the early tales of Thanksgiving reveals that there was a time when the Indians and colonists existed in harmony, and gave thanks to God for their relationship, and the miraculous survival of the early colonists, thanks to a little concept (though this may not have been the first time a free market style system had been used) we now call today "capitalism."

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