Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Time of Thanks at the State Library

As Thanksgiving approaches, we reflect, give thanks, and perhaps ponder the mysteries behind this special holiday.  The truth is, we do not know the details about the first Thanksgiving, despite the many generational stories and legends that have led us to believe certain “facts.”  In fact, the date of the feast was not even acknowledged; we only know it was between September and November, after the fall crops were harvested. Obviously, the first Thanksgiving was also not well documented, and very few first-hand accounts are in existence that we currently know of.  We are lucky to have two of these accounts here at the State Library of Massachusetts.

The Bradford Manuscript is an original document written by author and Plymouth Colony Governor (1621-1657) William Bradford.  It documents the Pilgrim voyage from England to the Netherlands to North America, the establishment of the Plymouth Colony, passenger lists and details, and of course, a vague description of the first Thanksgiving.  Bradford does not cover the feast in great detail.  However, we know that the meal was in celebration of a successful fall harvest, that 53 Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag, including Squanto, were in attendance, and that fowl and deer were served.  Traditional meals, like pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, stuffing and roasted turkey were not dishes that would have been present, as the necessary ingredients were not used or available at the time.

Another primary source is Edward Winslow’s Mourt's Relation; taken from it, this interesting
passage about the feast:

"our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours ; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie."

"The Pilgrims," a new film by Ric Burns,  will premiere on AMERICAN EXPERIENCE on PBS on Tuesday, November 24 at 8:00 PM EST and again on Thanksgiving Day at 9:30 PM EST.