Assignment IV: First Thanksgiving at Plymouth

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Assignment IV: First Thanksgiving at Plymouth
I can understand the challenges faced by early colonists and how they celebrated their survival.
1. Notes from Edward Winslow’s 1621 Letter to England (attached)
A. Building Projects:
B. Crops:
C. Hunting:
D. Celebration:
E. Relations with & Impressions of Natives:
F. Weather:
G. Food:
H. Advice to New Settlers:
2. Additional Notes from Modern Research (attached)


C. etc.

3. Jennie A. Brownscombe painting, The First Thankgsving: Critique (picture attached)

What is accurate/factual about the painting?

What is not accurate/factual about the painting? What changes, additions, deletions, etc. should be made?

Life in the Colonies: Plymouth and the First Thanksgiving Ms. Ellison

(Source: National Center for Public Policy Research,
Not all colonial settlements were the same. Life in early Plymouth was quite different from life in Jamestown. Most of our mental images of Plymouth Colony come from what we imagine about the group of settlers who sailed aboard the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. What historians know about the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth comes from a single primary source. It is a letter written by Mayflower pilgrim Edward Winslow soon after the landing. During the first winter in New England (the “starving time), Winslow's wife died. Two months later, he married Susannah White, whose previous husband had also died during the “starving time.” Edward and Susannah’s wedding was the first in the region. Susannah was also the first settler to give birth in New England. Winslow was elected governor of the colony several times.

Edward Winslow’s letter was written to a friend in England whom Winslow was hoping would join him in America with many other of their English friends. This version was abridged and translated into more contemporary language by Ms. Ellison. She encourages you to take a look at the original. She has a copy; just ask!

December 11, 1621

Though I have not received a letter from you, I know you expect me to write to you truly and faithfully of all things.

Since we have been here, we have built seven houses and four farm buildings and we have prepared to build others. Last spring we planted about twenty acres of Indian corn, about six acres of barley and peas. We used the Indians’ method of farming and fertilized our ground with herring fish, which we have in great abundance. Our corn grew well, and God be praised, we had a good crop of Indian corn. Our barley was also good, but our peas were not worth gathering. We feared they were planted too late.

Once we brought in our harvest, our governor sent four men to hunt for fowl, so that we could rejoice together after we gathered the fruit of our labors. In one day, they killed as much fowl as we could eat in almost a week.

At our celebration, among other recreations, we exercised our arms. The Indian chief and about ninety Indian men came to join us. We entertained them for three days and we feasted. They went out and killed five deer, which they gave to us. And though food is not always as plentiful as it was at the time of this celebration, by the goodness of God we are so far from lacking anything, that we often wish you were here to share our good fortune.

We have found the Indians peaceful, loving, and ready to please us. We often go to them, and they come to us. Some of us have traveled 50 miles in the country with them. It has pleased God to possess the Indians with a fear of us and love of us, so that they are glad to make peace with us. We walk as peacefully and safely in the wood as in the highways in England. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as are just as friendly to us and give us venison. They are a people without any religion or knowledge of any god, but they are very trusty, quick to learn, smart, and fair.

The weather here is about the same as in England, though it is somewhat hotter here in the summer. Some think it is also colder here in winter, but I cannot say. The air is very clear, and not foggy. I cannot in my life remember a more pleasant year than we have enjoyed here. If only we had swine, horses, and sheep, I have no doubt that men might live as contented here as in any part of the world. For fish and fowl, we have great abundance. Fresh cod in the summer is so abundant it isn’t even considered special. Our bay is full of lobsters all summer and also is full of all kinds of other fish. In September we can easily capture a barrel of eels in a single night, and we can dig them out of their beds all winter. We have mussels and other shellfish close by. We don’t have oysters nearby, but the Indians bring them to us when we ask. All spring, we get very good salad herbs from the earth.

We have very sweet and strong red and white grapes. We also have strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, etc.; three kinds of plums – white, black, and red. We have many roses.

All we need is building supplies and industrious men to work.

Now because I expect you and other friends to join us, I would like to let you know about a few useful things. Before leaving on the ship, be sure to have a very good bread-room to put your biscuits in. Let your cask for beer and water be iron-bound. Bring a good supply of clothes and bedding with you. Bring a musket or fowling-piece for each man. Make sure your muskets have long barrels. Bring plenty of shot for hunting big fowls, and bring plenty of powder. Bring lemon juice. Don’t worry about bringing rice unless you want to eat it along the way because our Indian corn is just as good. Bring cotton yarn for your lamps. Do not depend on us too much to give you corn when you arrive. We won’t have much until the next harvest.

Your loving friend,

E. W.
The First Thanksgiving (Sources: P. Deetz, Muse Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 9, Nov., 2001 K. Curtin, food historian, ) Ms. Ellison

What was the occasion and who was there? In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast which is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies. This harvest meal has become a symbol of cooperation and interaction between English colonists and Native Americans. Most of the “first Thanksgiving” images show a small handful of Native Americans among many more settlers. However, there were actually more Natives than settlers at the feast. One hundred and two people had sailed on the Mayflower for America. On the way, one died and one was born. But only 50 survived the first winter in Plymouth. Of these, 13 were children under 12, and 13 were teenagers. That leaves 24 adults. Massasoit [the Native chief], Winslow says, brought 90 men to the feast, and some Indians were already visiting the colony.

When was the feast held? We traditionally celebrate Thanksgiving in November. However, the celebration in 1621 happened earlier, at harvest time. In New England, depending on when the crops were planted and how fast they ripened, that would have been in the early fall, certainly not later than early October.
What did they eat? There’s no evidence that the settlers ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving. The birds that Winslow mentions being shot by the four men were probably ducks and geese because the harvest would have been at the same time as their fall migration. The settlers and their Native guests probably ate ducks, geese, and venison (deer) roasted on spits. They also could have eaten pottages (stews) made by cooking corn – and possibly wheat – in a broth made from stewed meat. Fish, eels, and shellfish such as lobster also would have been part of the early feast. And the Pilgrims would have drunk plenty of beer. In 1621 everyone drank beer, even the children.

Vegetable dishes didn’t really play a large part in the feast mentality of colonial America. Although cranberries grew in Plymouth, the settlers made no use of them. And pumpkin pie did not come along until much later. The pilgrims probably didn't have pies or anything sweet at the harvest feast. They had brought some sugar with them on the Mayflower but by the time of the feast, the supply had dwindled. Honeybees had not yet been brought over from Europe, so honey wasn’t available either. Also, they didn't have an oven so pies and cakes and breads were not possible at all. The food that was eaten at the harvest feast would have seemed fatty by modern standards, but it was probably more healthy for the pilgrims than it would be for people today. The colonists were more active and needed more protein. Heart attack was the least of their worries. They were more concerned about the plague and pox, not to mention starvation.

People tend to think of English food as bland, but, in fact, the pilgrims used many spices, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit, in sauces for meats. In the seventeenth century, cooks did not use proportions or talk about teaspoons and tablespoons. Instead, they just improvised. The best way to cook things in the seventeenth century was to roast them. Among the pilgrims, someone was assigned to sit for hours at a time and turn the spit to make sure the meat was evenly done.

Since the pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians had no refrigeration in the seventeenth century, they tended to dry a lot of their foods to preserve them. They dried Indian corn, hams, fish, and herbs.

How did they eat? What were accepted manners in those days? The biggest meal of the day for the colonists was eaten at noon and it was called noonmeat, or dinner. The housewives would spend part of their morning cooking that meal. Supper was a smaller meal that they had at the end of the day. Breakfast tended to be leftovers from the previous day's noonmeat.

In a pilgrim household, the adults sat down to eat and the children and servants waited on them. The foods that the colonists and Wampanoag Indians ate were very similar, but their eating patterns were different. While the colonists had set eating patterns—breakfast, dinner, and supper—the Wampanoags tended to eat when they were hungry and to have pots cooking throughout the day.

The pilgrims didn't use forks; While the English nobility of the time might have used forks, most people regarded them as unnecessary luxuries. The earliest fork found at Plymouth dates from the end of the 17th century. Instead, they ate with spoons, sharp, pointed knives, and their fingers. They wiped their hands on large cloth napkins which they also used to pick up hot morsels of food. Salt would have been on the table at the harvest feast, and people would have sprinkled it on their food. Pepper, however, was something that they used for cooking but wasn't available on the table.

In the seventeenth century, a person's social standing determined what he or she ate. The best food was placed next to the most important people. People didn't tend to sample everything that was on the table (as we do today), they just ate what was closest to them.

What was the tone of the first Thanksgiving? The pictures depicting the first Thanksgiving look a great deal like an outdoor church service. It appears to be a solemn occasion with everyone dressed their best. However, in his letter, Winslow makes no mention of giving thanks. He acknowledges the goodness of God, but that is as close as he gets. What was really taking place at the first Thanksgiving was not a form of worship, but rather the old English custom of celebrating the harvest of the year’s crop with revelry and feasting. Although this feast is considered by many to be the very first Thanksgiving celebration, it was actually in keeping with a long tradition of celebrating the harvest and giving thanks for a successful bounty of crops. Like the European settlers, Native American groups throughout the Americas had organized harvest festivals, ceremonial dances, and other celebrations of thanks for a plentiful harvest.

The Winslow letter says, “…amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes…” “Exercised our arms” means the settlers fired guns, probably in some kind of drill, or shot at targets. It is also possible they had archery contests with the Indians. What could some of the “other recreations” have been? We know that some of the settlers played stool ball, an early form of cricket, and that the English enjoyed throwing weights. There might also have been dancing and tumbling. In any case, the celebration is likely to have been rowdy and noisy, not subdued and solemn. There would have been gunfire, running and jumping, laughter and shouting – in two languages.

Jennie A. Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving, 1914. This painting appeared in Life Magazine and became the poster image of the first nationally observed Thanksgiving. (

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