Painting depicting the Pilgrims serving a feast to teh Wampanoag at the first Thanksgiving.

Who was invited to the First Thanksgiving?

There were probably almost 150 people in attendance at the first Thanksgiving. That’s a lot of cooking! Luckily, it was probably all outside, so they at least they didn’t have to do that scramble-to-clean-everything-and-hide-what-can’t-be-cleaned thing I do when guests show up.

Why did the Pilgrims invite the Wampanoags over for such a big dinner?

They had survived the winter, and after their first harvest, they finally had enough food to eat. Hallelujah! The Wampanoag leader, Massasoit, had taken an interest in helping the Pilgrims survive so the Pilgrims could help him defend the Wampanoags against their enemies. The Pilgrims knew darned well that they would have starved to death without their help, so it was only right to share. Besides, they were the only friends they had within thousands of (very wet) miles.

Except it wasn’t just uncle Massasoit who showed up. He brought about 90 Wampanoags with him. There were only 52 Pilgrims left alive at that point, so that was a serious guest list.

What did they eat?

There is a record of “fowl”. Could have been Turkey. Could have been goose. Could have been some other chubby, wild bird. Edward Winslow, who is the only one who wrote about the event, was insufficiently specific. He clearly did not do the cooking.

They did not, alas, eat pie. They had no flour or sugar. They didn’t have much of anything, except what Tisquantum (“Squanto”) showed them how to grow that spring and summer.

Luckily, the Wampanoags pitched in with the proteins. They hunted five deer, which could feed a village. And did.

Who cleaned up?

Good question. I have my suspicions, but no one felt the need to record the answer. On the upside, no one had enough space or seating for people to eat inside or at tables, or even with utensils, so the mess was mostly outside.

Since the festivities seem to have lasted three days (perhaps more), it is probably an excellent thing it was outside. No one needs that much partying inside when they are trying to get the kids to bed.

And one would like to believe that the Pilgrims had the good sense to have the shooting competitions that Winslow mentioned well away from town. They may or may not have brewed a little beer from their meager barley harvest, which may or may not have impacted the safety of those shooting matches. There are no known reports of casualties.

What’s with that painting?

Can we all have a collective chuckle at the mythical image accompanying this post? First, the Pilgrims outnumber the Wampanoags, which they most certainly did not at the actual event. Second, it implies that the Pilgrims were the active purveyors of the feast, when, in reality, the Wampanoags brought just as much of the food and knew everyone too well to be sitting around like intimidated guests. They were practically family, and no one in my family sits around that meekly when there is food to be had. And third, in what fantasy would all those aprons and ruffs be so glaringly white after a year of farming, death, and a New England mud season? For the record, the dog is legit.

Should we celebrate the first Thanksgiving?

The first Thanksgiving was a rare moment where Europeans and Native Americans worked and celebrated together, without the specter of genocide. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoags, particularly the leaders of each group, seem to have genuinely gotten along, and each side fulfilled their mutual protection treaty, even when it seemed not to be in their own best interest. Certainly neither group could divine the future.

Unfortunately, that all went to hell, and the two sides waged the deadliest per capita war in American history a generation later, and I completely respect the feelings of those who view the arrival of the Pilgrims as the beginning of a tragedy of epic proportions.

But I like to think of the first Thanksgiving as what could have – should have – been. The record seems to show that both groups viewed the first Thanksgiving as a big, festive potluck that celebrated their mutual aid and society. Cheers to that.

Why did I start researching Thanksgiving?

To begin with, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. Gratitude and giant piles of food. A brilliant combination. But I also have some ancestors who were there at that first one. Alas, they were also there for the not-so-nice stuff later.

And I wanted to write stories about the Pilgrims and Puritans, the first of which will be coming out in the not too distant future.

If you want to learn more about the Pilgrims, the Wampanoags, and the first Thanksgiving, I recommend the website for Plimouth Patuxet Museum, or better yet, a visit in person. They do a fabulous job of interpreting the Pilgrims, and they have a number of Native American interpreters who interpret their own ancestors for you.

If you do go and get hungry, try the Wampanoag platter at their cafeteria – it is much tastier than the Pilgrim platter!

Image credit: Gordon Johnson, via Pixabay

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