The rigors of the first winter for the Mayflower Pilgrims are well-known to most students of American history (1620-1621). Nearly half of the original 104 settlers died during that intense season of sickness, suffering, and sadness. Yet, God providentially intervened in several remarkable ways throughout the following spring and summer by providing help in the midst of their infirmities.
In particular, the Lord provided an English-speaking, God-fearing, lonely-hearted Indian by the name of Tisquantum. It was said of Squanto that he knew the King’s English and the streets of London far better than his Pilgrim friends. He also knew all of the Indian ways that would be such a great help to the Pilgrims in their desperate hour. At just the right time God brought this unexpected deliverer upon the scene. Immediately, Squanto started educating the Pilgrims on how to catch fish out in the Bay, and how to capture freshwater eels in the stream with their bare hands. He also taught them how to fertilize and plant corn, and how to safely store the harvested corn Indian-style.
Arguably, his most important role was in serving as an interpreter for the English in negotiating a pact of non-aggression and mutual defense with Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoags. Without the timely provision of Squanto’s assistance it is doubtful that such a permanent peace could have been negotiated. This peace treaty remained in effect for over fifty years. He was warily called by the Indians “the tongue of the Englishmen”. But, Governor William Bradford affectionately referred to him as, “a special instrument sent of God for their good, beyond their expectation.” In God’s unforeseen providence Squanto not only discovered a new home for himself built near his old village, but he was lovingly adopted by the Pilgrims and became a respected member of their community.
It was out of this surprising set of circumstances that the Pilgrim’s gathered in the fall of 1621 to hold a feast of thanksgiving to God. Their feast was most likely based upon the Old Testament practice of the Israelites who were instructed by God to hold a feast of thanksgiving at the end of the harvest season. In ancient days this festival was known as the Feast of Booths because its celebrants were to live outdoors in primitive huts for seven days. The Bible records the following instructions,
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 23:39-43; English Standard Version)
It should be noted that the Pilgrims did not hold this feast of thanksgiving to satisfy the provisions of the Old Testament ceremonial law—which they believed had been completely fulfilled through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ—but to obey the biblical principle of being thankful for all that God had provided. Thus, they prepared a feast of thanksgiving out of gratitude for God’s abundant blessings. The evangelization of the Indians was also on their minds therefore they invited Massasoit and his braves to attend. It was quite a surprise when he showed up with ninety hungry warriors!
Here are two eyewitness accounts of the original thanksgiving feast. The first testimony is from the Pilgrim author Edward Winslow (1595-1655) who wrote this account during the second winter and published it in his book, Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrim’s at Plymouth (1622). Winslow remarked,
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, so that we might after a 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 outside help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their great king Massasoit, with some ninety 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. 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. (Winslow, Mourt’s Relation, 72)
Curious historians have often wondered, “What was the menu for that first thanksgiving feast?” Evidently no one ever wrote down the exact menu. But the answer is not too difficult to construct given an awareness of English culinary practices and the testimony of the second eyewitness, Gov. William Bradford (1590-1657). He wrote of this time period in his informative book, Of Plymouth Plantation (1647).
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to prepare their houses for the winter, being well recovered in health and strength, and plentifully provisioned: for while some had been thus employed in affairs away from home, others were occupied in fishing for cod, bass, and other fish, of which they caught a good quantity, every family having their portion. All the summer there was no want. And now, as winter approached, wild fowl began to arrive, of which there were plenty when they came here first, though afterwards they became more scarce. As well as wild fowl, they got abundance of wild turkeys, besides venison, etc. Each person had about a peck of meal a week, or now, since harvest, Indian corn in that proportion; and afterwards many wrote at length about their plenty to their friends in England—not feigned but true reports. (Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 89)
Therefore, an educated guess of what was on the menu of that first thanksgiving feast would include the following items:
From the two quotes we learn that the feast included cod, sea bass, wildfowl (such as ducks, geese, turkeys and swans), corn meal (and probably wheat), and five deer brought by the Indians. Meat, fish, and bread were the most important elements of the English diet at this time, although fruits and “herbs” were also eaten. The term “vegetables” was not in use at this time; edible plants were known as sallet herbs, potherbs or roots. It is quite possible that shellfish were not a feature at the feast, for although they were plentiful and formed a large part of the Pilgrims diet in the early years, they were looked on as poverty fare and hence inappropriate for a feast. The meats were roasted or boiled in traditional English fashion, and the fish boiled or perhaps grilled in the Indian manner. Breads were skillet breads cooked by the fire or perhaps risen breads baked in a clay or cloam oven. Fruit tarts were produced in the same way. The herbs were either boiled along with the meats as “sauce”, or used in “sallets”. A sallet was a vegetable dish either cooked or raw, and either “simple” or “compound” (that is, made from one ingredient or several). The popularity of sallet or vegetable dishes was not great at this time. Therefore, they are not always mentioned although they were served fairly frequently . . . Beverages included beer, Aqua Vitae (or “strong waters”) and water. (Travers ed., The Thanksgiving Primer, 17)
Overall, we can deduce from the evidence that the Pilgrims held a feast of great abundance. Chief Massasoit and his men were greeted by an overflowing table as they sat down to eat. One wonders if they had ever seen so much food at any one setting before! Certainly, this feast was a fitting celebration of God’s providential care. Moreover, it was an amazing testament to the Pilgrim’s indefatigable efforts and their sacrificial labors in carving out a new home in the rough and rocky wilderness of New England.
With God’s help they survived the severities of the second winter (1621-1622), and prospered so much that another thanksgiving feast was held after the harvest in the fall of 1622. In time, the feast of thanksgiving became an annual event that was much anticipated by all of the inhabitants of Plymouth—both young and old alike. It was filled with bountiful platters of food, multiple contests of skill, and grateful times of worship. Below you will find Gov. William Bradford’s official thanksgiving proclamation for the year of 1623. It gives a colorful description of the crops that were produced, as well as a moving picture of God’s providential care throughout the year. He wrote,
Gov. William Bradford’s
“Thanksgiving Proclamation” (1623)
To all ye Pilgrims: Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according the dictates of our own conscience.
Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meeting house on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 daytime, on Thursday, November 28th, on the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty-three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye almighty God for all His blessings. William Bradford, Ye Governor of Ye Colony. (Federer, America’s God and Country, 66-67)
Here we have the compelling testimony of Gods providential care and protection of the Pilgrim families. Although there would be many challenging circumstances yet to come in the life of Plymouth’s Pilgrims—the preservation of their fragile colony through cold, deceit, famine, financial worry, political intrigue, religious persecution, schism, sickness, storm, sudden fire, and war all demonstrated the magnanimous favor of God in the midst of their hardships. The Pilgrims themselves steadfastly believed that God had preserved and protected them, and that he was worthy of all praise and thanksgiving for the mercies of his providential care. On this providential theme Gov. William Bradford wrote the following comments about the year 1630. He noted,
Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things out of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled has shone unto many, yea in some sort to our whole nation; let the glorious name of Jehovah have all the praise. (Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 226)
Indeed, the Lord watched over the Pilgrims and providentially supplied their needs. This promise from the Bible certainly rang true for the Pilgrims of Plymouth.
“Praise the LORD! Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments! His offspring will be mighty in the land; the generation of the upright will be blessed.”Psalm 112:1-2
Resources for Further Study:
Bartlett, Robert M. The Faith of the Pilgrims: An American Heritage.New York, NY: United Church Press, 1978.
Beale, David. The Mayflower Pilgrims: Roots of Puritan, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist Heritage. Greenville, SC: Ambassador-Emerald International, 2000.
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. Reprint, San Antonio, TX: co-published by Vision Forum & Mantle Ministries, 1988.
Brown, John. The Pilgrim Fathers of New England and their Puritan Successors. London, England: The Religious Tract Society, 1895.
Federer, William J. America’s God and Country. Coppell, TX: Fame Publishing, Inc. 1994.
Jehle, Dr. Paul. Plymouth in the Words of Her Founders. San Antonio, TX: Vision Forum, 2002.
Marshall, Peter, and David Manuel. The Light and the Glory: Did God have a plan for America?Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1977.
Ryken, Leland. Wordly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.
Schmidt, Gary D. William Bradford: Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim. Grand Rapids, MI: William. B. Eerdmans, 1999.
Travers, Carolyn Freeman ed. The Thanksgiving Primer. Plymouth, MA: Plimoth Plantation Publication, 1991.
Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York, NY: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1945.
Winslow, Edward. Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Jordan D. Fiore ed. Reprint, Plymouth, MA: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1985.
Books to Read Out Loud to Children:
Bulla, Clyde Robert. Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims. New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc. 1954.
Carpenter, Edmund J. The Mayflower Pilgrims. Arlington Heights, IL: Christian Liberty Press, n.d.
Daugherty, James. The Landing of the Pilgrims. New York, NY: Random House, Landmark Books, 1950.
Foster, Marshall, and Mary-Elaine Swanson. The American Covenant: The Untold Story. Revised edition. Santa Barbara, CA: co-published by The Foundation for Christian Self-Government in 1981, and by The Mayflower Institute in 1983.
Pumphrey, Margaret B. Stories of the Pilgrims. New York, NY: Rand McNally & Company, 1912. Reprint, Corvallis, OR: Creation’s Child, 1986.
Otis, James. Mary of Plymouth. Reprint, Bulverde, TX: Mantle Ministries, 1999.
Copyright November 2008. Rev. Marcus Serven, Th. M.
Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.