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Thread: The Myth of the First Thanksgiving

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    The Myth of the First Thanksgiving

    Ask any preschool teacher. Thanksgiving is all about the turkey.

    Millions of kids draw one every year because, as everyone knows, that’s what the Pilgrims and Indians shared at the first Thanksgiving feast.

    “Gobble, gobble,” they say .

    “Gobbledygook!” says British historian Godfrey Hodgson. While we know a lot about the origins of Thanksgiving, much of what we know is wrong. In A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (Public Affairs, $24.95), Hodgson argues that as wonderful as modern Thanksgiving is, its supposed beginnings owe their origins more to mythmaking than to fact.

    Among the book’s assertions:

    •While the colonists and the Indians did share a meal, it did not include turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. More likely the meal was a stew made of venison, raccoon and beaver meat with beans and squash.

    •The colonists didn’t refer to themselves as Pilgrims. And they weren’t Puritans either. They were Englishmen who had broken from the official church.

    •The feast was neither called a “thanksgiving” nor intended as one. Colonists gave thanks by fasting, not feasting. In succeeding years the colonists and Indians neither observed the celebration nor repeated it.

    “Generations of Americans have been taught that the Thanksgiving meal of today not only celebrates that feast, shared with the Indians, but replicates its menu,” wrote Hodgson. “It is clear that none of these beliefs is true. What we are seeing, when we sit down to a Thanksgiving turkey, is a prime example of what historians have called ‘the invention of a tradition.’ ”

    Hodgson said he was not attacking tradition but pursuing truth.

    “I’m a great fan of Thanksgiving,” he said. “I’m just trying to find out how it came about, how it was transformed and how it became what it is now.”

    Thanksgiving, Hodgson said, has been transformed the last 385 years. Along the way its traditions have been cemented by iconic paintings.

    But Hodgson’s revelation about the lack of traditional food at the famous meal is the biggest shocker to many readers. Let’s take this one by one.

    No sweet potatoes? Sweet potatoes didn’t grow in the rocky New England soil.

    No cranberry sauce? Not without sugar, which wouldn’t arrive in the colonies for another 50 years, Hodgson said.

    No pumpkin pies? The colonists had neither the ingredients for the crust nor an oven to bake it in.

    But by Godfrey! No turkey?

    Nope, said Hodgson, who relied on James Deetz, a former staff member at the Plimoth Plantation museum in Plymouth, Mass.

    “Turkeys are very hard to kill, and the matchlocks of the period weren’t very good for hunting,” Deetz said.

    Besides, the excavation of 10 sites yielded only one turkey bone.

    But wait. What about the statement about turkeys by William Bradford, one of the colonists’ leaders? He wrote:

    “And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”

    “There were a lot of them, and we killed a lot of them,” said Carolyn Freeman Travers, research manager at Plimoth Plantation. “And I assume once you kill them, you eat them.”

    When told about the passage, a sheepish Hodgson retreated.

    “Umm, there might have been turkeys.”

    What do you know? Maybe everything we Americans think we know about Thanksgiving isn’t wrong after all.

    At least the preschoolers have it right.



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    Americans' Thanksgiving feast.....

    Well, one thing is for sure. The immigrants (Did they call themselves that rather than Pilgrims or Puritans ?) did NOT hunt turkeys or anything else with blunderbusses as often depicted in paintings.

    The blunderbuss was a riot-control weapon which was also carried by coachmen as a defence against highwaymen. The ultimate "scatter gun", it was useless for hunting. The immigrants surely could not have spared the amount of shot which it wasted, the effective length of the barrel being very short. The flare contributed nothing to the trajectory or spread of the shot.

    Doubtless, artists have shown the "Pilgrims" carrying blunderbusses because they were, though useless, very picturesque. BTW, one could NOT load the thing with scrap iron, gravel, and nails. The stuff would jam in the bore and the blunderbuss would explode. eyes:

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    •While the colonists and the Indians did share a meal, it did not include turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie. More likely the meal was a stew made of venison, raccoon and beaver meat with beans and squash.
    ^ That sounds damn good. I heard the Indians taught the settlers how to catch eel too, this possibly being on the Thanksgiving menu.

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    Thanksgiving feast.....

    Hodgson is guessing and his guesses IMO, are way off the mark. What ? They had no grain and no oven ? Nonsense. They must have had grain. The main reason for landing at Plimoth was "our beer being much spent." One can't brew beer without grain. Bread was the "staff of life". It is unimaginable that they did not bake bread.

    The colonists were accustomed to using honey for a sweetener both in Britain and in the Netherlands. A satisfactory cranberry sauce can be made with boiled cranberries and honey. Wild honey could be obtained from beehives in trees.

    Hodgson grants to the colonists far less ingenuity and resourcefulness than they must have had to survive. A pie can be baked by covering the filled crust with leaves and burying it in embers. Also, when only matchlocks were available, matchlocks were certainly used for hunting despite their limitations.

    Essentially, Hodgson is telling us what HE wouldn't have been able to do in the 17th century had he lived then. How fortunate for him that he was born 400 years later.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Egil Skallagrimsson
    Essentially, Hodgson is telling us what HE wouldn't have been able to do in the 17th century had he lived then. How fortunate for him that he was born 400 years later.
    I agree completely! Don't you know that before modern shotguns white people just didn't know how to hunt? eyes: While I do agree that the chances that they ate exactly what is passed down as a traditional thanksgiving meal is a stretch, only the sweet potatoes are impossible, though some type of baked tuber or squash is likely. And who cares (I do find that kind of stuff interesting though), the name says it all "Thanks-giving", it's a harvest festival, a time to give thanks for the bounty of the earth and all the hard work your kin put in to get you through the very busy and intensive growing and harvesting. Myths are useful, the pageant of thanksgiving is an American myth that I certainly wouldn't want to throw out. It's also one of the least commercialized of the holidays, relitively at least.
    Wake, Jotun, wake! Shake, Jotun, shake! Burn and blow, rain and snow! Wake, Jotun, wake!

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    Having spoken to hunters (both White and Indian) they feel that venison is as easy to hunt as turkey. So hunting deer makes more sense than turkey.

    I envision venison/ bear/ small game stew.Fish and shellfish. Wild onions, corn pudding, squash (acorn,turbin, summer,zucchini,pumpkinetc) beans, seaweed and very little bread. (They had to save enough to last though the winter and plant in the spring after all) Hoecakes, indianpudding(with maple syurp instead of molasses) cooked dried fruit. Maybe wild rice and nut soup but that is more of a blackfoot or lakota/dakota recipe. People outside of the upper class were not eating that many sweets so even if there was a pumpkin pudding in a crust I doubt that it closely resembles the current confection.

    It was not what I heard about in kindergarden but one of many examples of food being exchanged/ given/shared with settlers.

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