Hey, all you fun lovin’ Boomer Gals and Boomer Guys, I wanted to give you a taste of history this Thanksgiving, with special mention to the lovely lady who kept the Thanksgiving Holiday tradition going (you have to read this entire blog to find out)…

This past month has been the launch of BoomerGal, and as with any new venture, there have been a few glitches, none being insurmountable, however.  As we move into December I’m going to shake up our blog posts with lighter content, more helpful ‘how to’ decorating hints, and health and wellness inspiration, including some diet tips which we will all need after going into turkey and all-day football comatose.  

Follow us as we travel back down the road to the First Thanksgiving.  Share this bit of history with your friends, family and neighbors, and reflect on your own history and memories of days gone by.  

All of us growing up in the 50’s and 60’s were told in school that the first Pilgrims had buckles on their shoes and hats, and had great feasts with the early Native Americans.  While some of this might be true, the true history and accounting of the first Thanksgiving is largely a mystery.  However, a few scholars have some ideas about what exactly went on during the feast of 1621.  So, sit back and enjoy the celebration of Thanksgiving.

When the Pilgrims set sail for the new world the common belief was they were searching for religious freedom, but that was only partially true.  After exploring other countries such as Holland where certain religious freedoms were extended, they soon discovered the Dutch and other culture’s craft guilds excluded foreigners, making it virtually impossible for them to make any real money.  So they decided to head to America where they could both make money and enjoy religious freedom.

Replica Representation of the Mayflower I

In 1620 two ships called the Mayflower and the Speedwell began their long voyage across the Atlantic.  40 Pilgrims were joined by 62 secular colonists also headed to the new world until the Speedwell developed a leak and both ships had to turn back.  All 102 passengers along with their belongings then crammed onto the Mayflower and set sail once again, unfortunately during the prime storm season.  The ship finally made ground after a treacherous 66 days at sea, with surprisingly only one fatality.  They were aiming to make port in Virginia where they were promised a tract of land for a plantation.  They missed, and landed in modern-day Massachusetts where they named the new colony Plymouth, after the English port from which they sailed.

The Pilgrims Making Landfall at Plymouth

The new land was soaring and fertile, however, the Pilgrims spent the first winter on board the Mayflower, where they lost almost half the colonists due to the tight quarters and a harsh New England winter.  Once spring arrived, only 53 colonists and half the crew remained.  Women were the hardest hit, and so it is told only five survived the first winter.

New Horizons for the Pilgrims

Once winter was over, the colonists left the ship, and the Mayflower began its journey back to England in April 1621.  The Pilgrims started to build their colony with the help of a local Native American tribe call the Wampanoag.  They taught the settlers how to farm, fish and hunt in their new home.

With the help from the Native Americans, the Pilgrims harvested plenty of food over the summer and fall to keep them well-stocked for the upcoming winter.  In England, there’s a tradition called the Harvest Festival that’s celebrated at the end of the harvest season.  It’s intended both to give thanks for what you have and to share with those who have less.  In 1621, after over a year of hardship and loss, the Pilgrims finally felt like they had something to celebrate.

There was a three-day feast at which both Native Americans and Pilgrims came together to enjoy the successful harvest season.  It’s unclear whether the Wampanoag were actually invited to the celebration.  Either way, roughly 90 Native Americans showed up.  There were almost twice as many natives as there were Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving.

In a letter to a friend, dated December 1621, Edward Winslow wrote:  “Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time, among other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.”

Replica Museum of “Plymouth Plantation”

While it’s been documented that wild turkeys were prevalent in the area, there’s no mention of them actually being served at the first Thanksgiving.  Historical documents do state that fowl was served, but don’t specifically mention turkey.  The Wamganoag arrived with an offering of five deer, which was most likely the main course of the feast.  Because of the availability in the region, fish and shellfish probably played a large role in the feast as well.  

In addition to the meat, local fruits and vegetables like onions, beans, berries, cabbage, and corn were most likely a part of the feast.  Although turkey might not have made the menu on the first Thanksgiving, cranberries certainly did.  Native Americans frequently ate cranberries for their tart taste, and used them for dye in a wide variety of applications.

Unfortunately, the Pilgrims didn’t have the time to build any ovens in the year that they had been in Plymouth, which means dessert pastries, like pumpkin pie, didn’t make an appearance at the original feast.  The Pilgrims didn’t get to eat any yams, either, since potatoes weren’t native to North America and hadn’t been brought over from Europe yet.

No one is certain whether the Wampanoag and the colonists regularly sat together and shared their food, or if the three-day “thanksgiving” feast Mr. Winslow recorded for posterity was one-time event. 

The true history has been a difficult one to uncover.  Staff at the “Plimoth Plantation,” which occupies several acres on the outskirts of the city of Plymouth, just north of Cape Cod, have been in the vanguard of researching the event.  Unfortunately, everything historians know today is based on only two passages written by the early colonists.

Until the early 1800’s, Thanksgiving was considered to be a regional holiday celebrated solemnly through fasting and quiet reflection.

But the 19th century had its own Martha Stewart, and it didn’t take her long to turn New England fasting into national feasting.  Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, stumbled upon Winslow’s passage and refused to let the historic day fade from the minds – or tables – of Americans.  This established trendsetter filled her magazine with recipes and editorials about Thanksgiving.  In her magazine Hale wrote appealing articles about roasted turkeys, savory stuffing, and pumpkin pies – all the foods that today’s holiday meals are likely to contain.

In 1858, Hale petitioned the president of the United States to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday.  She wrote:  “Let this day, from this time forth, as long as our Banner of Stars floats on the breeze, be the grand Thanksgiving holiday of our nation, when the noise and tumult of worldliness may be exchanged for the length of the laugh of happy children, the glad greetings of family reunion, and the humble gratitude of the Christian heart.”

Five years later, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

And as they say, the rest is History.  From my BoomerGal family to yours, however you define and celebrate this special holiday, just remember to give thanks.

Contributing editorial content provided by Trivia Genius and Elizabeth Armstrong, Special to The Christian Science Monitor.

Disclaimer:  I subscribe to no authorship of this article, other than to have had the distinct privilege of assembling bits and pieces of historical information from the internet.  The purpose was to share insight into what is documented as chronicled accounts of the First Thanksgiving.  I trust you enjoyed the reading as much as I did researching it.

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