By Coleen Burnett
Most of us will sit down on November 28th to what we think is the traditional Thanksgiving dinner with friends and family. There will be turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes with gravy and pumpkin pie for dessert. And after dinner, Uncle Dave will collapse into the recliner in the living room, unbutton his pants, and proclaim, “I’m stuffed! We ate too much — just like the Pilgrims!”
According to Glenn LeBoeuf of the Let History Live project, letters and other documents provide a different story of the celebration of the first Thanksgiving than what we have originally been taught. “We have images we were told to believe that are largely untrue,” he said last week to a group at the Monmouth County Library in Shrewsbury.
The Pilgrims were a band of 85 people who spent a stormy six to seven weeks aboard the Mayflower, which was a relatively small boat. Only about half of them had survived when the ship landed on Plymouth Rock in the fall of 1620. They would have landed just about anywhere at that point “They were exhausted and they wanted to get off the boat,” said LeBoeuf. “That first winter would be horrific.”
But they managed. The group quickly realized that in order to survive, they had to think like the Native Americans that already populated the area. The new settlers were greatly helped by an Indian named Squanto who lived in the vicinity of Plymouth Rock. He had been educated in England and spoke English. Squanto taught them the best ways to hunt, fish, and work the soil.
The settlers spent the next year building a settlement and planting crops, and in late in 1621, the first Thanksgiving feast was held. The actual date is unknown, but it is believed to be anywhere from September 21 to November 9.
There is evidence that shows the feast lasted over a two or three day period. The menu featured venison, eel, goose, duck, and eagle, as well as clams and lobsters. Turkey? It’s a matter of debate.
“They were scrawny and there weren’t that many of them,” said LeBoeuf.
It was expected that 20 to 30 people —which included the Native Americans — would show up. Instead, the final count was more like 130. Anyone who’s ever hosted Thanksgiving can sympathize with that.
LeBoeuf said it was not like they had to send out for more chairs. American Indians preferred to sit on the ground. “They didn’t like to sit at a table,” he said. Also worth noting is that the Indian women ate first, befitting their high standing in Native American culture.
Before the main course, they served pumpkin soup. There may have been a pumpkin porridge. There is no evidence that they served pumpkin pie.
And history does not record whether there were any leftovers.