What did they eat at the 1621 harvest celebration?
- Artist name is no longer known.
- Plimoth Patuxet Museums
If there is one day each year when food and family take center stage, it is Thanksgiving. Most Americans are familiar with the traditional Thanksgiving meal that has developed over the centuries, including platters of roasted turkey with stuffing, cranberry sauce, various preparations of potatoes and pumpkin and apple pies. But which of these foods appeared on the table during the 1621 harvest feast?
The images of the famous first harvest festival of 1621, often referred to as the “First Thanksgiving,” are so widespread that it is tempting to believe that the event and its food were thoroughly documented. Yet there is much we don’t know. The only eyewitness account mentions just two foods - venison and wildfowl - and doesn’t indicate what else was eaten or how the food was prepared or served. For that, we must turn to a study of historical foodways, or the study of a culture’s use of food; including its acquisition (by growing, gathering, purchasing, hunting and fishing), preservation (by drying, smoking, or salting), preparation (cooking and serving) and consumption (diet). Seventeenth-century sources - paintings and drawings, archaeological evidence, period cookbooks, artifacts, oral histories and the writings of the English colonists themselves - help us make educated guesses about the food-related details of the three-day celebration.
What was on the table?
Perhaps the strongest connection between the 1621 harvest celebration and later Thanksgiving celebrations is that both menus are based on seasonally-available foods with New England roots. The presence of venison, hunted and brought back to New Plymouth by Ousamequin’s men, was significant. Both cultures enjoyed it. In England, however, venison was rarely part of a common person’s experience. In England, deer were found only in the parks and forests of the landed gentry. Venison was not commercially available; by law, you could not buy or sell it.
On the other hand, deer was central to the Wampanoag way of life, providing not only meat, but other materials for clothing and tools. Men were responsible for providing their families with meat and fish, spending fall and winter hunting large animals such as deer. Colder months were better not only for the furs, but also because most animals are not bearing their young at that time. If deer were hunted at other times of year, care was taken to obtain only bucks. Ousamequin’s presentation of five deer to the English leaders was essential to the diplomacy taking place during the three-day event.
“Our governor sent four men on fowling…” Like venison, wildfowl were also considered a celebratory food though they were eaten throughout the year. Winslow writes that in one day, four Englishmen “killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.”1 Thousands of migratory ducks and geese are found in the region each fall, and smaller birds, such as quail and the now-extinct passenger pigeon, may have made an appearance on the table as well. It is also probable that the feast featured turkey. Governor William Bradford noted that there was a "great store of wild turkeys" during the fall of 1621."2
Contemporary sources note the plentiful fish and shellfish, including cod, sea bass and shellfish the communities enjoyed throughout the late summer and fall of 1621. In mid-September, Plymouth Governor William Bradford wrote that those men who stayed close to home that summer “were exercised in fishing, about cod, and bass, and other fish of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion; all the summer there was no want.”3Mussels, lobster and eel were available throughout the fall as well. Both the English and Wampanoag enjoyed these fruits of the sea; it is possible that Indigenous and English women saw one another along the marshes and beaches gathering the abundant offerings.
The 1621 harvest feast was held following a successful harvest of the multi-colored flint corn. The English referred to in sources as Indian corn to differentiate it from their English “corns” or grains like wheat, rye and barley, which did not grow as well in New England soils. Flint corn had long been a staple of Wampanoag diets and quickly became central to the English diet as well. Wampanoag women used the corn, along with beans, as a base for soups and stews. The English acquired their first seed corn by taking from a cache in a Native storage pit during one of their initial explorations on Cape Cod.4It is likely that the English colonists were processing and preparing this new corn for the first time in the fall of 1621. As they adapted to their new home, colonial housewives used the new corn in traditional English ways - as the grain in porridges (or pottages), puddings and flat, unleavened bread.
Meat and grain were the most important elements of a 17th-century English meal, but both cultivated and wild fruits and vegetables (called “herbs” by the English) were also available throughout the fall. English gardens probably produced cabbages, carrots, cucumbers, colewort (collards), parsnips, turnips, beets, onions, radishes, lettuce and spinach as well as sage, thyme, parsley, marjoram, fennel, anise and dill. Wampanoag women planted, weeded, hilled, tended and later harvested several types of beans, summer and winter squashes, pumpkins, melons and sunflowers. English women also cultivated beans and squashes, including pumpkins.
Most native plants were nearing the end of their seasons by September, but Jerusalem artichokes, wild onions, garlic, watercress as well as cranberries and Concord grapes were still available, as were a number of native nuts, including white oak acorns, hazelnuts, black walnuts, hickory nuts and chestnuts. Wampanoag women crushed and boiled nuts of all kinds, including the sunflower, to obtain the oil; they also ground nuts into flour for making breads and thickening hardy stews.
As late as the fall of 1621, some foodstuffs may have remained from the original provisions aboard Mayflower. Other ships to New England were known to bring a variety of spices, seasonings, butter and oils. Even in small amounts, imports such as dried fruits, wine, pepper, sugar, ginger, nutmeg or cinnamon could make foods taste more familiar to the Pilgrims. While there is no record of farm animals aboard Mayflower, later listings of animals suggest that chickens, pigs, and goats may have come in 1620. Therefore, eggs and goats’ milk were probably available to the English housewives.
Water was the most likely beverage. The Wampanoag were well aware of the good sources of water in the area and situated their homesites near the many natural springs found in the area. Although a number of English accounts refer to the “sweet” quality of New England’s water, the colonists likely missed beer. In England, small beer (weaker than today’s modern brews) was the drink of choice throughout society regardless of age, gender or status. In the first year, the English grew a few acres of barley, so it is possible that they may have brewed small amounts of beer or ale. If any remained from the supply brought on Mayflower, some wine or aqua vitae (or “strong waters”) may have appeared as well.
What modern Thanksgiving favorites were absent?
The 1621 harvest celebration included plenty of wildfowl, and the Wampanoag and English occasionally stuffed birds and fish, typically with herbs, onions or, for the English, oats. Cranberries were a seasonal native fruit, but it would be about another half century until a recipe for cranberry sauce or cranberry tart, both sweetened with substantial amounts of sugar, appeared in print. It is possible, however, that an English housewife used cranberries to add tartness to an English sauce, and they were a highlight of the Wampanoag calendar. Throughout the late summer, Indigenous women could be found in the wild bogs searching for specks of brilliant red amid the berries’ vines and beds of sphagnum moss.
Potatoes, which originated in South America, were not yet well-known in North America, although plenty of other tubers were. By 1621, both sweet and white potatoes had crossed the Atlantic, but they had not generally been adopted into the English diet. Sweet potatoes were a rare dainty to the wealthy, and white potatoes were still the purview of the botanist and gardener.
Pumpkin was very likely on the harvest table in some form, but not as pumpkin pie. Pumpkins and other squashes, called pompion by the English, were native to New England. Certain species had been introduced to Europe by 1500, where they had gained widespread acceptance. However, New Plymouth probably lacked the butter and wheat flour in substantial enough quantities to make a pie crust. The earliest written recipes for pumpkin pie came after 1621, and those treated pumpkins more like apples, slicing them and sometimes frying the slices. Although the English were familiar with pies from at least the 13th century, there were no apples in Plymouth yet, so those could not be made into pies either.
Setting the Table
The English enjoyed feasting. Bills of fare of the period, even for less affluent families, look enormous to our eyes. Courses didn’t proceed from soup to sweets, but contained all sorts of foods at the same time. The table was set with a variety of dishes, and they were brought to the table and passed by the children and servants who waited on their families.
People sat at cloth-covered tables which had been set first with salt and bread. They ate with knives and spoons, but no forks. Large linen napkins, about three feet square, were important since hands were used to both serve and eat. Dishes and trenchers (small square or round wooden plates) were used. The food was taken from the serving bowls and platters, and perhaps cut on a trencher before being consumed, or just eaten without being cut.
There were at least 140 people at the three-day harvest celebration. Little more than fifty English people remained after the difficult winter of 1620, and Winslow writes that Massasoit and ninety of his men joined the celebration. The four adult women who survived the first winter - Elizabeth Hopkins, Elinor Billington, Mary Brewster and Susanna Winslow - probably oversaw the cooking and preparations, with the help of the teenagers, children and servants.
One group of people has been traditionally overlooked in the 1621 story: Pokanoket women. We don’t know how many, if any, were present. Winslow’s eyewitness account, in which he describes “many...Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit [Ousamequin], with some ninety men,” suggests other Indigenous people were present. These were probably local families, including Hobbamock, a Native pniese (warrior-counselor) who lived near the English at Plymouth. He had a household of ten people, including several women. This information, combined with Wampanoag oral and hospitality traditions, suggests that Native women may have been present at the celebration as well.
If they were present, Indigenous women may have been involved in food preparation. In the 17th century, Native women traditionally cultivated gardens and gathered wild plants as well as cooking for their households. When meat and fish were brought home by the men, for example, it was the responsibility of the women to skin and clean, or otherwise prepare for either immediate cooking or to dry or smoke to preserve for future use. Native sobaheg (or stew), boiled bread and nasaump (corn porridge) may also have been part of the menu and prepared by the Native women alongside their English counterparts.
There are no detailed period accounts of a harvest feast in Plymouth, but in a later 1639 record of a New England feast, it appears that the town divided into thirds to eat.5 From this suggestion, perhaps the colony broke into groups, not as families, but as larger divisions of the company. Because of the large number of participants, it seems likely that much of the feasting took place outside throughout the day.
While the three-day harvest celebration was a secular event, both English and Wampanoag people had long traditions of giving thanks. Undoubtedly, some sort of grace or prayer preceded the feasting. A typical English pre-meal prayer incorporated the themes of this “Thanksgiving before Meate” prayer was published in 1625:
O Lord our God and heavenly Father, which of thy unspeakable mercy towards us, has provided meat and drink for the nourishment of our weak bodies. Grant us peace to use them reverently, as from thy hands, with thankful hearts: let thy blessing rest upon these thy good creatures, to our comfort and sustentation: and grant we humbly beseech thee, good Lord, that as we doe hunger and thirst for this food of our bodies, so our souls may earnestly long after the food of eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, Amen.
Although we can’t be sure exactly what was served in New Plymouth in 1621, we’ve selected some likely candidates. We hope they will inspire you to create new Thanksgiving traditions.
How do we know what people ate 400 years ago?
What do we know was eaten at the 1621 harvest celebration? How do we know?
Who brought venison (deer meat)? Why was venison such an important part of the meal?
What is your favorite thing to eat during Thanksgiving? Was it on the table in 1621?
Draw a 17th-century English table laid for a feast. What utensils do we still use today?
What are examples of “good table manners”? Should all families have the same rules about table manners?
How do you practice gratitude for the food you eat?
- 1 In A Relation or Journall of the beginning and proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, by certaine English Adventurers both Merchants and others...I. In a journey to PUCKANOKICK the habitation of the Indians greatest King Massasoyt…” [Mourt’s Relation] (London: Printed for John Bellamie, 1622). An accessible version is A Relation or Journal of the beginning and proceedings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, ed. Dwight B. Heath (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1963), 83
- 2 William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation: A Facsimile of his Original Manuscript, (Plymouth, MA: Plimoth Patuxet Press, 2020), 77.
- 3 Ibid., 77.
- 4 Heath, 22.
- 5 Scituate and Barnstable Church Records, 22 December 1639, in New England HIstorical & Genealogical Register X (Boston: Samuel G. Drake, 1856), 39.