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Updated: November 23, 2022 @ 8:59 am
This painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, “Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” in 1925 depicts the traditional view of the first Thanksgiving in North America. The painting hangs in the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

This painting by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, “Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” in 1925 depicts the traditional view of the first Thanksgiving in North America. The painting hangs in the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Thanksgiving is now upon us! Spending time with family and friends, and all the fixings are ready for the centerpiece dish of a semi-flightless bird! Between passing the mashed potatoes, arguing with that uncle with interesting world views, and getting ready to watch the Thanksgiving football game, it is easy to forget the importance of the history behind the dishes.
While the occasion has been mythologized into popular culture and often pointed to as a coming together of European settlers and Native Americans, the truth behind it is far more complicated.
The Pilgrims and the local Wampanoag Indians of Southeast Massachusetts turned to each other out of a mutual need for protection and provision. The Pilgrims had arrived in the New World a year earlier, in November of 1620, with 135 passengers.
Arriving at the end of the growing season and settling into a region they knew very little about, the colony nearly fell apart in its first months. They were ill-prepared for the winter and had few provisions to make it through the next cold months. As a result, only 53 colonists survived into October 1621. When spring did arrive, planting European crops proved exceedingly difficult.
The local Wampanoag nation, by contrast, had just recovered from a disease outbreak brought on by interactions with European traders. The spread of the disease was so bad that it is estimated between 75% and 90% of the Wampanoag population died.
Europeans had captured Tisquantum (Squanto) a few years before the epidemic. When he returned after finding passage to the New World, he discovered his village entirely abandoned due to illness. He ended up as the last of the Patuxet tribe.
The neighboring Narragansett Indians (who lived in modern-day Rhode Island) were rivals of the Wampanoag Indians and threatened to take advantage of their weakened state for expansion. Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, and Squanto decided to reach out to the new arrivals on their shores to diminish this threat.
Squanto and the Wampanoag tribe taught the Pilgrims about the local crops and how to use the land. Immediately, the colonists discovered the plentiful resources at their disposal, and the colony began to recover.
In exchange, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag created a mutual defensive agreement to assist the other in case of attack. This exchange ensured the European settlement’s longevity and prevented the Narragansett Indians from planning a surprise attack. As the good relations continued that year, the first Thanksgiving was held in October 1621 as a three-day feast.
While this history gives us a glimpse of inter-tribal national relations at the time and the unexpected initial positive relations with Europeans in New England, I find significant the long-term importance of food from the very first meal. The menu for that first Thanksgiving was very different from what we enjoy today, but its cuisine ultimately shaped what we know.
First, there were no pies, as butter and flour were unavailable to the Pilgrims in that first year. Second, there were no potatoes. While it is a food of the New World, it had not made its way to North America, being available then only in the Spanish Empire. Cranberry sauce also was not available simply because it had not been invented yet.
The meal itself was indeed “North American” and consisted primarily of Native American dishes and game. The centerpiece of the meal was deer, as the Wampanoag brought four freshly hunted deer at the beginning of the celebration. Wild turkey, although present, would not have been the centerpiece. Waterfowl, such as duck or goose, would have been the preferred dish over turkey.
Along with this avian dish, there would have been roasted pigeons, and any stuffing would have consisted of onions, herbs, and even just shelled chestnuts. Included in the meal would have been a variety of seafood, including eel, lobster, clams, mussels, and several types of smoked fish. Lastly, there would have been vegetable produce from the famous “three sisters” of Native American agriculture: beans, squash and corn.
The name “three sisters” is applied to these crops for how they were planted. Unlike European farming, Native Americans grew the “sisters” together because they yielded symbiotic benefits. The corn acts as something for the beanstalk to climb up. The beans stabilize the corn in the wind and enrich the soil with nitrogen for its sister plants. At the same time, the squash’s broad leaves provide shade that keeps the soil moist and prevents weeds from taking root.
This technique and other agricultural gifts from Amerindian cultures allowed European colonists to thrive in the Americas and reshaped cuisine and general farming practices across the globe. Pumpkins, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, beans, corn, and even chocolate came from the Americas and were mixed with crops from Afro-Eurasia. Italian, French, Dutch, English and even Indian cuisine today cannot exist without crops and techniques from the New World.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of early American colonization or the history of world cuisine, visit the Shepard-Pruden Memorial Library and check out some of our books on this topic. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and we hope to see you at the Library!
Jared Jacavone is librarian at the Shepard-Pruden Memorial Library.

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