By Jack Sheedy
Although we now celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, it is generally agreed that the Pilgrims did not celebrate their 1621 feast during the eleventh month of that year, but rather in late-September or October after the first harvest.
The two primary sources that mention that legendary first harvest are William Bradford’s journal (published as the book Of Plimoth Plantation) and a letter written by Edward Winslow (published in the book Mourt’s Relation). Bradford refers to the gathering in of their first harvest, including fish and fowl, wild turkeys, venison, and of course, the savior crop - corn. He does not mention a Thanksgiving meal with Native Americans, per se, but such a harvest meal, perhaps, is alluded to in so many words.
Yet, Winslow, in his letter dated December 11, 1621, and which travelled via “sea-mail” aboard the vessel Fortune back to England, fills in the details of that great harvest feast – details which for the past four centuries have painted our collective portrait of that peaceful Pilgrim-Native event.
Winslow wrote that after the harvest, Governor Bradford sent a handful of men out “fowling” in order to provide enough food for a week-long celebration. Part of that Thanksgiving harvest event included a three-day affair with the Natives, including their chief, Massasoit. But, instead of a handful of Natives, some ninety arrived, and sizing up the situation, Massasoit sent a number of his men out to hunt deer, bringing back five, which were presented to Bradford to add to the feast. As a result, everyone was fed and a splendid time was had by all. Winslow’s letter went on to say how he found the natives “faithful,” “loving,” “ripe-witted,” and “just.” He described a peaceful relationship that succeeded on many levels – “we often go to them, and they come to us” – and further mentioned that the Pilgrims walked with as much safety in the forests of the New World as they might walk along the streets of England.
But, getting back to the actual timing of that great harvest feast of 1621, if it most likely occurred in either September or October, what were the Pilgrims doing during the month of November – during the month when we now honor their legendary First Thanksgiving?
Actually, they were participating in another traditional custom of Thanksgiving – they were entertaining company. And not just a couple of in-laws arriving with a pumpkin pie and their overnight bags, but some 35 passengers and crew of the vessel Fortune, which arrived at Plimoth in late-November with the next wave of “Pilgrims.” And, according to Bradford, they arrived empty-handed, without provisions (“not so much as a biscuit cake”) and with pretty much only the clothes on their backs. Likewise, the new settlers were a bit shocked at how the Pilgrims were living - wearing ragged clothing and living in Spartan houses…and without cable television to boot.
Fortunately, there were still plenty of Thanksgiving leftovers to go around.
Jack Sheedy is the co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd.