Was There Turkey at the First Thanksgiving?

Was There Turkey at the First Thanksgiving?

Michelle Kurianowicz, Editor-In-Chief

Thanksgiving is a United States national holiday that is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving is often celebrated with family and friends gathering for a feast that includes turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade streaming on the television. But how did this holiday originate?

In 1620, 102 English passengers left Plymouth, England, aboard the Mayflower, in search of religious freedom. About 3 months later, the Mayflower crossed the Massachusetts Bay, where they began to establish the new settlement of Plymouth. Through the duration of the first winter, most colonists remained on board the ship, and suffered from scurvy and outbreaks of disease. The brutal winter cut the number of colonists in half, and in March, they moved ashore, where they were greeted by a member of the Abenaki tribe. 

A few days later, the member returned with another famous Native American, Squanto. Squanto was a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, who had been previously kidnapped by an English sea captain, and sold into slavery. However, he returned to his homeland on an expedition. He taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, get sap from maple trees, catch fish, and what plants should not be eaten. In November of 1621, governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast in honor of the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest, and invited a great deal of Native American allies. The festival lasted three days, and even though we do not have an exact menu, historians suggest that most dishes were prepared using traditional Native American cooking methods and spices. Although over 90% of Americans today cook a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner today, it is still unclear whether or not the first Thanksgiving had turkey. According to journal entries from the 17th century, we can confirm that some dishes consisted of deer, wildfowl, fish, and a variety of corn. 

There are some scholars out there who doubt that the Pilgrims were the first to celebrate Thanksgiving. Historians have recorded celebrations that predate the 1621 celebration. For instance, in 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé hosted a dinner and mass, inviting members of the local Timucua tribe to celebrate his crew’s safe arrival. In late 1619, British settlers who arrived on the banks of Virginia’s James River designated the day as, “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Finally, historians noted that Native Americans have long had rich traditions of celebrating harvest with feasts, long before Europeans arrived in America.