Partakers of plenty
America’s first Thanksgiving and the immigrant experience
CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
The Norwegian American
“And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
So wrote Pilgrim Edward Winslow in a personal letter to a friend in England, after a long, hard year when the settlers of Plymouth, Mass., celebrated their first successful harvest. The 1621 harvest feast is based on that letter written by Winslow, member of the Leiden, Holland, Separatist group who later served as Plymouth Colony’s third governor. This letter was later reprinted for all to read in Mourt’s Relation (1622), an account of Plymouth Colony’s first year.
The Plymouth settlement began after the ship Mayflower dropped anchor off the coast of Cape Cod. Its cargo was 102 English people, many of whom were Separatists escaping religious persecution by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Because they did not want to join the Church of England, they were considered treasonous and subject to prison. Others were aboard for different reasons.
Some 66 were added to the group by financial backers to bring the total number to a point deemed sufficient to establish a colony in the New World. England’s gentry or elite were not in the mixed group. These people were products of a medieval world whose legacy was still felt in the first year of the 17th century. The year 1620 was further removed in time from the American Revolution than it was from the landing of Columbus on the North American continent in 1492.
The crossing itself was regarded as successful, because only one person died. After 66 days at sea, the weary settlers, buffeted by ocean storms, were feeling the effects. During preliminary explorations of the land, a site for settlement was finally agreed upon in what had formerly been an extensive Native American cornfield.
Beginning a new life
The physical hardships of starting a colony were difficult. Using the Mayflower as a base of operations, work parties went ashore daily, constructing a common house, laying out house lots, and scavenging for food. People quarreled. Slowly, winter took hold, but the small town was growing. Unfortunately, death was taking hold as well. Provisions on the Mayflower had been moved to the common house, but they were running low. Pilgrims probably shot wild turkeys and fished, but there is no accounting. Death and hunger were certainly always lurking.
The words of Winslow were later designated by Bostonian minister Alexander Young as the harvest feast that was the “First Thanksgiving” in his 1841 book Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. Despite disease and hunger, the Plymouth settlers or Pilgrims came together with their Native American neighbors. There were at least 140 participants; about 50 colonists remained after the harsh winter, and according to Winslow’s account, Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, brought 90 men to the table.
Celebrations after a successful crop harvest, however, are as old as the harvest itself. In ancient Mesopotamia, humans were sacrificed to the harvest gods; in Egypt, a sheaf was offered to the wheat mother. Recent traditions can be traced to Lammas, a medieval holy day on the first of August. Christians took bread baked with the first flour of the season to church to be blessed. By Victorian times, Lammas Day was no longer a religious festivity. However, the concept of rejoicing for a bountiful harvest remained alive on the farm where good weather, soil fertility and abundant crops were never taken for granted.
Before the railroad distributed grains far and wide, the quality of the local harvest meant the difference between eating or not eating. Farmers well understood what happened when weather or insects destroyed crops. In England, the harvest marked the climax of the rural year and was one occasion when class differences were subordinated to mutual interests. The farmer who owned the harvested crop was obligated by custom to provide a feast for the reapers and their families. Long trestle tables, decorated with flowers, fruit and small corn dolls, displayed a varied and plentiful menu with most edibles grown or raised on the farm.
By 1861, England’s Anglican Church encouraged churches to adopt the custom of decorating their interiors with the bounty of the fields. Called Harvest Home, the day became widely popular, and as a result, farmers were willing to turn their responsibility for holding harvest appreciation to the parish. To those of Christian faith, the celebration was one of praise for God’s blessings. Many early photographic images dating around the 1880s to the 1900s from both England and America illustrate churches’ altars filled to the brim with abundance—flowers, fruits, and vegetables.
Although the first year in Plymouth was hard, plagued by exposure, cold, hunger and disease, by early fall of 1621, the outlook was better. Gov. William Bradford declared that the surviving colonists should “rejoice together”—a New World Harvest Home celebration, the most important of the rural festivals and a sentiment of success that the Pilgrims would have recognized from their lives in England.
Native Americans taught the colonists how to successfully plant corn, using herring as fertilizer; how to tap maple trees for sweet sap and where to find eels, an English delicacy. Thus, the 1621 harvest celebration, enjoyed by both colonists and Native Americans, was a result of working together—early diplomacy, if you will. Certainly, it had been a matter of survival for both sides.
A New England cornucopia
Perhaps the greatest link between the 1621 feast and today’s holiday is the menu of New England foods. The mention of deer in Winslow’s account is significant. Although common in Massachusetts, venison could not be sold by law in England and was subsequently only enjoyed by the landed gentry. On the other hand, for the Wampanoag, like the bison or buffalo in the American West, it not only provided nutrition but also the raw material for clothing and tools. In addition, contemporary sources note plentiful fish, and shellfish, as well as late fall crops, including Jerusalem artichokes, wild onions and garlic, Concord grapes, native walnuts, and chestnuts.
The cranberry deserves special mention. Growing wild in low-lying areas called bogs, the Wampanoag had early discovered its versatility. A pink blossom appears in late spring, resembling the head of a crane, hence the early name “craneberry.” In the fall, the blossom turns into a tart berry. Native Americans enjoyed the berries, fresh or dried, raw or cooked. Added to venison, cranberries were an essential ingredient in pemmican, a dried food that provided protein and vitamins during winter’s scarcity. Cranberries were also mashed and shaped into poultices to draw out poison from arrow wounds, and the juice transformed blankets to a rich burgundy color.
Plimoth Patuxet Museums gives context to Thanksgiving where it began. At Historic Patuxet, you journey to learn about the Native peoples who inhabited the region for thousands of years before the arrival of the English. Nearby is the 17th-century English village, a re-creation of the Pilgrims’ farming community along the shore of Plymouth Harbor. It is an early Plymouth, complete with timber-framed houses furnished with reproductions of objects the Pilgrims would have owned, as well as aromatic kitchen gardens and heritage breeds livestock. When you meet a person wearing historical clothing, they are playing the role of an actual inhabitant of Plymouth Colony, conversing as if history were not in the past.
Ships as symbols of freedom
The full-scale reproduction of the tall ship that brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620, the Mayflower II, was designed by naval architect William Avery Baker. Built between 1955 and 1957 in Brixham, England, the second Mayflower was intended as a gift from the people of the United Kingdom, honoring the alliance of friendship forged between our nations during World War II. The ship set sail from Plymouth, England, in 1957 with a crew of 33. It arrived on the shores of Plymouth, Mass., on June 13 to a crowd of some 25,000 spectators.
From 2014 to 2016, Plimoth collaborated with Mystic Seaport Museum, the nation’s leading maritime museum, on the years of work when skilled shipwrights worked alongside Plimoth’s maritime artisans to fully restore the ship, according to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Vessel Preservation Projects. Nearly 70% of the ship’s timbers, planking, structural frames, knees, and beams were replaced, using six types of wood from eight states and as far away as Denmark.
The ship returned to her berth in Pilgrim Memorial State Park in 2020 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival and is now a satellite museum under the umbrella of Plimoth Patuxet Museums. Like the Restauration, the “Norse Mayflower,” it has become the symbol of every immigrant who searched for a new life in a faraway land.
On what is considered the first organized emigration from Norway to America, the Restauration set sail from Stavanger in 1825 with 52 aboard, many of them Norwegian Quakers. It’s difficult to leave your homeland without knowing what the future will bring. Every Norwegian American understands that. In a way, the Mayflower carried us all here just as the Restauration carried all Norwegians to America. They are both powerful symbols of freedom and self-determination.
Plimoth Patuxet Museums, a living history museum, is the Museum of Thanksgiving, a place where ancient traditions of gratitude in both the Wampanoag and English cultures merged in the autumn of 1621, and a new holiday of gathering and giving thanks for life blessings began. In this time of global pandemic and upheaval around the world, it feels particularly important to express gratitude for what we have.
A living experience
Thanksgiving is a heartfelt time to visit Plimoth Patuxet Museums, located less than an hour’s drive south of Boston and 15 minutes north of Cape Cod. In addition, there are many opportunities to enjoy early foodways in the popular Thanksgiving dining programs, including the New England Harvest Feast. Open seven days a week, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. See plimoth.org for more information.
Photos courtesy of Plimoth Patuxet Museums, unless otherwide noted.
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.