The First Thanksgiving Reality Check

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(Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Edward Doty, an indentured servant, boarded the Mayflower in Devon, England, on the sixth day of September in 1620 to make the three-month-long journey to the colonies. The 100-foot boat was packed with 102 passengers and roughly 35 crew members. The weather was horrid; westerly winds tossed the Mayflower about. But, by the grace of God, only two passengers died during travel. No one has to wonder where the phrase “shiver me timbers” originated. They made landfall at Plymouth, MA, north of their intended destination in Virginia. Instead of the gentler climes of the mid-Atlantic region, they faced a cold Massachusetts winter.

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Illustration depicting the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Getty Images)

The original Pilgrims sought freedom from the Church of England. They and the rest of the passengers, called “Strangers” by the Pilgrims, met the harsh New England winter unprepared. But they also immediately decided their indenture contract was null and void. Tensions bubbled over into outright discontent (for the pious and mannerly Pilgrims). To ward off further dissension, the Mayflower Compact, a document to provide law and order in the new colony, was penned and signed by Pilgrims and Strangers alike, including Edward Doty. And then they got down to the business of carving civilization out of the wild and untamed land.

Let’s Give Credit Where Due

The new colonists who survived that first winter did so peacefully and with the friendship and aid of the Wampanoag tribe. Yes, we all used to get along just fine. So much so that after a successful first planting and harvest, it was decided a celebration was needed to enjoy and give thanks for the bountiful colonial world and newfound friends.

They did not have mashed potatoes, gravy, or green bean casserole. However, they did dine on venison, wildfowl, fresh cod, bass fish, and flint – a variety of corn Native Americans harvested and ate as porridge or cornbread. There are only a handful of first-person accounts – the following posited on parchment by another Mayflower passenger, Edward Winslow: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a 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.”

Celebrating the harvest was a traditional English holiday to honor the year’s hard work and resulting yields. The yearlong friendship with the Native Americans was something to be thankful for, and 90 tribe members were invited to join in. The Wampanoags and 53 thriving Pilgrims and Strangers carried on for three days. Not only did they feast, but they also played games, one being target practice. Again, Winslow explained:

“Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit. 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.”

Back in the Day

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Mr. Doty and the other Plymouth colonists were God-fearing but also quite playful. They were educated of the new world by their Indian friends, including a brave named Squanto, who spoke fluent English and helped translate and guide the newbies. Those first Thanksgiving revelers embraced one another’s culture, depended on the strengths of each other to help establish a new homeland, and shared their wealth. They set a precedent with the Mayflower Compact – a precursor to the U.S. Constitution. They made diplomatic relationships and enjoyed the company of other races and cultures. It sounds like a charming event, that first Thanksgiving, one we should all strive to emulate today.

As for this writer, I will try and channel Edward Doty’s energy, wit, and stick-to-itiveness on this day. He was my eighth great grandfather – and, from all accounts, I may have inherited his temper and snarky sense of humor. But I am for sure going to hunt for a Wampanoag to hug. Tradition is calling.

~ Read more from Sarah Cowgill.





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