Maybe a need to grab attention is what drives the effort to say what’s always been fact is actually myth, or likely untrue. Or, at least cannot be proven.
Yes, of course it is quite likely that the Pilgrims ate that ye olde side-dish of yore, friend cornmeal mush. From every account there was more cornmeal than they really knew what to do with.
But no, it is not unlikely that the Pilgrims did not serve turkey on the first Thanksgiving.
Deconstructing history is necessary to make the arcane contemporary. Revising an old tale is wise when some who contributed to an event were studiously ignored in its first telling.
In radical departure from its cultural watersheds like Ice Truckers, Swamp People, and Garbage Hoarders, The History Channel authoritatively declares on its website in a brief video, “The History of Thanksgiving,” that:
“The feast probably did not include our modern Thanksgiving staple, turkey. More likely the colonists and Wampanougs dined on roast goose, along with corn, codfish and lobster.”
The same “fact” is amplified in a full-length “Real Story of Thanksgiving” episode promising to “shatter the myths,” the narrator assuring the viewer:
“…We assume that they brought back turkeys, but we don’t know for sure. In fact, the only record of the feast never mentions turkey.”
The problem is that the so-called “only record” is not the only record. The standard work always referenced on Thanksgiving is a letter written about it by Pilgrim Edward Winslow. Since he only recorded that some of the men went “fowling” without saying exactly what type of fowl, many argued that it might just as likely have been partridge, quail, goose or duck.
There is, however, another record.
A full, detailed accounting in fact of the entire story of the Pilgrims progress, from their years leaving Europe on the Mayflower to founding the Plymouth Colony in December of 1620 to the three days of thanksgiving feasting in November of 1621.
It was written in 1630, by none other than that most puritanical of Puritans, that stalwart among sex-crazed Pilgrims, that master of the Mayflower, Governor of the Plymouth Colony not for one four-year term but five terms over a total period of thirty years – William Bradford. As he wrote:
“They began now to gather in the small harvest they had…and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.”
There was far more than meat, however, There was that ubiquitous all-American vegetable, in yellow or white, ground down into that most plentiful grain. Lots of it. As Bradford continued, “Besides, they had about about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.”
Besides Governor Bradford witnessing for the fat birds, there is another chunk of contextual evidence. Immediately after the first Thanksgiving was celebrated, the ship Fortune arrived at Plymouth, bringing the first boatload of new colonist since the original Mayflower settlers. Among them was one William Hilton.
In the days following the first Thanksgiving, in a letter he wrote to a cousin in England about his arrival and new life in the Plymouth Colony, Hilton left a record of what food was being consumed right at that time:
“…the country very pleasant and temperate, yielding naturally, of itself, great store of fruits, as vines of divers sorts in great abundance. There is likewise walnuts, chestnuts, small nuts and plums, with much variety of flowers, roots and herbs, no less pleasant than wholesome and profitable. No place hath more gooseberries and strawberries, nor better. Timber of all sorts you have in England doth cover the land, that affords beasts of divers[e] sorts, and great flocks of turkey, quails, pigeons and partridges; many great lakes abounding with fish, fowl, beavers, and otters. The sea affords us great plenty of all excellent sorts of sea-fish, as the rivers and isles doth variety of wild fowl of most useful sorts.”
And, of course, Hilton added, there was the fact that “Better grain cannot be than the Indian corn…”
Of course, one can get technical about the type of Wild Turkey that was served to all those who attended the first Thanksgiving.
And the type of Wild Turkey we are certain was not served.
- Feast Beasts: Two Pilgrim Dogs At the First Thanksgiving? (carlanthonyonline.com)
- How ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ author created Thanksgiving – not the Pilgrims (washingtonpost.com)
- If You Ate Like a Pilgrim, You Would Be Hungry on Thanksgiving (wonderfultips.wordpress.com)