Roughly four centuries ago, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated and it became a time to rejoice for many early Americans. The grand dinner was in celebration of a very successful harvest, something which was not to be taken for granted during the 1600s. The exact year was 1621 and while the luxury of ovens and stovetops were not part of the cooking process, there are records of early recipes and cooking methods. Our idea of Thanksgiving is quite different from what was celebrated back in 1621 - experts aren't even certain that turkey was at the dinner table during the celebration!
The variations don't stop there, either. As opposed to celebrating for one day, the very first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated over the course of several days and it's very likely that it wasn't even celebrated in November, as we celebrate it today. Now that we refer to the holiday as 'Turkey Day,' its meaning has completely evolved into something to be thankful for in terms of family, friends, health, and good food. Back in 1621, it was essentially a celebration of survival, with Native Americans and early settlers rejoicing over the fact that they could fill their tables with food. So, what else differed between then and now? Let's find out.
September's Bountiful Harvest Brought About A Party
It may not have been a party, per se - but it was certainly a celebration. The best information that experts have on the first Thanksgiving came from a written account by Edward Winslow, which was penned in December of 1621, a month or more after the feast. Winslow had been one of roughly 100 people who sailed to the newly-formed colonies from England and he had been there for nearly a year before the first Thanksgiving. His written account has been verified by another account written by William Bradford, who was the governor during 1621, and referenced Thanksgiving while retelling the history of the colony's founding.
To the best of every expert's knowledge, Thanksgiving lasted around three days and didn't actually occur in November or on the date that it's celebrated in the US every year. Rather, it's surmised that the event took place anywhere between September and mid-November, making an end-of-November celebration nearly impossible. Furthermore, the celebration was in honor of a successful harvest, something that early settlers struggled with as they learned the harsh reality of agriculture and hunting in the colonies.
The celebration was said to have involved roughly 50 settlers, according to History.com, and it was not lost on the colonists how chaotic the journey to America was - the celebration was also a celebration of life, in general, as a testament to those who had survived the journey and life in a new country. There weren't only settlers in attendance; a very prominent member of the first celebration sat at the table with the new colonists, and his name was Ousemequin, known as Massasoit to the settlers, and he was the leader of the Pokanoket Wampanoag tribe. It's said that the tribe consisted of roughly 90 people during those days, all of whom were in attendance at the celebration.
Interestingly enough, it's still unclear as to how the celebration grew to include both the settlers and the Pokanoket Wampanoag, although one possibility is that the tribe was in the area making their rounds for crops as it was the end of the harvest season. While we refer to the holiday as Thanksgiving, there's no evidence to point to whether or not this celebration was even named during that time - rather, it was just considered to be a harvest celebration. The tradition of giving thanks was a custom that was prevalent in both cultures; the settlers would give thanks before every meal and it was common for the Pokanoket Wampanoag tribe to give thanks while hunting or gathering, showing gratitude for every berry picked or fish caught.
Sure, we celebrate with a giant turkey and more sides than we can finish in a week. However, things were quite different during 1621. Considering the celebration took place in New England, seafood was in abundance, which is what would have been served at the table. In addition to that, venison would have been more common than turkey. Experts say that it's very possible the poultry could have been on the menu but it wouldn't have been a centerpiece as it is today. Any fruits and vegetables that grew well in the colonies would be at the table as well, such as cabbage, leeks, lettuce, parsnips, pumpkins, and several other root vegetables.
Cranberries, which grow famously in Massachusetts, as well as walnuts and chestnuts, all became part of the feast, which is likely where we got our own ideas for 'traditional' Thanksgiving food today. Much to many people's disappointment, though, pumpkin pie and potatoes of any kind were not in attendance at the first Thanksgiving. The celebration eventually became a New England tradition, with colonists celebrating it every year as a way to give thanks for their harvest season.