by Valerie Nusbaum

The First Thanksgiving

It’s that time of year when we all start making plans for the holidays.   We have to decide who’s going to prepare and host Thanksgiving dinner, and what the menu will be. There’s usually a lot of stress and some squabbling involved, and sometimes even the guest list is an issue. This got me thinking about what the very first Thanksgiving celebration must have been like.  I shudder to imagine how much thought and preparation went into that dinner.


…traveling back to 1621

It was autumn in 1621.  The Pilgrims had arrived in Plimoth (Plymouth) the previous year on The Mayflower, and they had been busy making a new home for themselves.  There were seven newly-constructed houses and a meeting hall, along with several storage buildings for food. The harvest was in and it was bountiful. At least one-third of the settlers, a Puritan sect, had left England to seek freedom from religious persecution, so it was thought that a time of prayer and feasting was in order. Cable hadn’t been installed in the colony yet.  Comcast has always been slow.  If you can’t watch football on Thanksgiving, you might as well eat, right?

Captain Miles Standish called Governor William Bradford to suggest that members of the Wampanoag tribe be invited to join the feasting. The colonists understood that their survival was largely due to help received from the Wampanoags, and the tribe had the only football. If they couldn’t watch football, at least they could play. Of course, there’s that whole thing about what the English call “football,” but beggars can’t be choosers.

The women, led by Priscilla Alden, gathered to discuss the menu and plan the day’s activities. Since the Wampanoag tribe would be traveling from many miles away, lodging would need to be arranged.  The colonists had only managed to build seven houses in ten months, and there were at least ten people living in each house. So it was decided that after the tribe walked for two days from their village, they could build their own shelters. Did I mention that the natives had the only tools? None of the colonists had thought to bring a hammer from England, and the Home Depot was just too far away.

Mrs. Alden, who was a sultry redhead not unlike Peggy Stitely, was none too happy about being saddled with entertaining so many people. She had relatives already staying in her home—some of them in-laws—and she and John were newlyweds. When John had informed Priscilla that she would be doing Thanksgiving dinner for several hundred people, her reaction was much as yours or mine would be.

“Thou wants me to do what?” she exclaimed.  “Art thou crazy?  What is WRONG with thee?”

But, after promising her that he’d go to Jared, John managed to convince Priscilla that she was the right woman for the job.

The ladies decided that they would serve roasted ducks and geese, and they promptly dispatched a hunting party to the forest to shoot the fowl. Another party was dispatched to go to the Wampanoag village and beg them to bring along some venison, because the women all doubted that their husbands would do much more than drink ale and lie about the one that got away. It is doubtful that turkey was served at the first Thanksgiving, although at that time the term “turkey” referred to any kind of wild fowl or several of the husbands.

There wasn’t any flour for bread, so corn would be ground into samp, or porridge, for some carbs.  It would be fried and on a stick because that’s where that whole concept began. There would be seafood, cabbage, onions, more corn, and squash. Games would be played, and there would be singing, dancing, and prayers. It was expected that the feasting would go on for several days, or until fighting broke out, as is the case with most Thanksgiving celebrations. Someone would have to travel to Walmart to lay in a supply of Beano and Tums.

The Wampanoag tribe arrived several days later, led by Massasoit (Great Leader). They quickly set up their tents, and proudly presented the Pilgrims with several fresh deer carcasses. The Pilgrim women grumbled about having to cook more food. Priscilla, who sounded exactly like Joanna Lumley from Absolutely Fabulous, went so far as to ask Massasoit if he had remembered the charcoal. He smiled and nodded his head, because he thought all the English sounded like their mouths were full of marbles.

A lot of head nodding, smiling, and hand gestures were seen around the table that day. There was the traditional loosening of breeches and loincloths, which presented some problems for the game of touch football that followed the meal. Mrs. Alden and the other ladies particularly enjoyed watching a young warrior called Chippendale, but that’s a story for another day.

Interestingly, there was no Thanksgiving feast the following year.

Bill Blakeslee, who happens to be a very good cook, told me that he plans to invite nearly half of Thurmont to his home for dinner on Thanksgiving. If you haven’t gotten your invitation yet, be sure to remind Bill about it.

Share →