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Real First Thanksgiving Wasn't So Cozy

  • Ted Landphair

Real First Thanksgiving Wasn't So Cozy

Real First Thanksgiving Wasn't So Cozy

On Thursday, we Americans will mark our annual Thanksgiving holiday. It often revolves around a lavish dinner for family and friends that begins with a prayer of thanks for our blessings. The Thanksgiving tradition is modeled after harvest-home feasts - especially what's been called the First Thanksgiving in colonial Massachusetts.

What a pleasant First Thanksgiving in this painting by Jean Louis Ferris. But it's fantasy. For one thing, it was fall in the Northeast, and everyone would have been warmly dressed

What a pleasant First Thanksgiving in this painting by Jean Louis Ferris. But it's fantasy. For one thing, it was fall in the Northeast, and everyone would have been warmly dressed

It's the pleasant story of a cold, late-fall day in 1621, when about 50 pious English settlers called Pilgrims, who had barely survived their first winter in the New World, shared a feast with neighboring Wampanoag Indians.

But according to curators at Plimoth Plantation – a living-history museum in the same settlement where the Pilgrims and Indians marked that harvest almost 400 years ago – the Thanksgiving story is more fable than fact.

We can be pretty certain that the Pilgrim and Indians' turkey, if indeed its meat was on the table, was a lean, tough wild variety - not a fine, fat gobbler like this

We can be pretty certain that the Pilgrim and Indians' turkey, if indeed its meat was on the table, was a lean, tough wild variety - not a fine, fat gobbler like this

For one thing, the event likely took place in October, closer to the corn harvest. For another, while the skimpy records from 1621 mention fowl, these were likely geese and ducks. They were certainly not the plump, domesticated turkeys that American families stuff and roast today.

And you can forget the First Thanksgiving illustrations of long tables piled high with breads and pumpkin pies. The Pilgrims had neither the sugar nor the wheat flour and ovens needed to make those baked goods.

The Pilgrims and Indians had pumpkins and other gourds, but no real way to make pies out of them. Even mashed, boiled pumpkin innards would not have tasted very good without sugar

The Pilgrims and Indians had pumpkins and other gourds, but no real way to make pies out of them. Even mashed, boiled pumpkin innards would not have tasted very good without sugar

Nor did the Wampanoags wear big, beautiful feathered headdresses like those of Plains Indians. Wampanoag attire was spare and practical.

And ignore the myth that this was the first of many happy Thanksgivings celebrated with native people who willingly accepted colonization. The alliance between Pilgrims and Wampanoags lasted just 50 years before broken treaties led to fighting and bloodshed.

Discount, too, those images of men in Pilgrim costumes - fine coats, shiny shoes, and tall hats with big buckles above their wide brims. The struggling Pilgrims wore beaver hats and deerskin coats. After the rough year they had had, they were likely thankful to have ANY clothes, and to have lived to wear them.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.

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