Don’t Worry, Turkey on Thanksgiving is Historically Accurate!

The First Thanksgiving 1621 is an oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930). Like many historical paintings, it gets some of the details wrong! Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. See the original here.

Each year, as Thanksgiving Day rolls around, the blogosphere is bombarded with articles telling us that everything we know about Thanksgiving is wrong. In particular, these articles focus on the three-day event in autumn 1621, during which English colonists at Plymouth, Massachusetts, hosted 90 members of the Wampanoag tribe for a feast. Skeptical articles revisiting the Plymouth feast are often quite accurate, and generally act as a useful corrective against such mistakes as mythologizing American history, whitewashing the relationships between Europeans and American Indians, and seeing the past only through the lens of the present.

Sometimes, however, such articles go too far. This year, the New York Times added its august voice to this annual clamor of Thanksgiving skepticism, telling us (among other things) that the 1621 event was indeed the basis of our modern Thanksgiving, that the Wampanoag were not invited to the feast, and even—shockingly—that the celebrants ate no turkey! Luckily, I think there’s good cause to be skeptical of their claims.  [Note added 2019: The link earlier in this paragraph goes to the original version of the Times article at the Internet Archive’s Wayback machine.  They subsequently changed it to address some of our concerns, and the new version is here.]

It’s a sad reflection of the newspaper’s approach that their reporter, Maya Salam, mentions no primary sources and names neither of the contemporary authors who wrote about the feast. Edward Winslow and William Bradford, who both were at the 1621 feast, wrote separate accounts of the fall of 1621, which are widely available to read, online or off. I’ll quote them in full later on, but you can also find them on this simple pdf handout. Rather than refer to those accounts, Salam relies on historians, popular authors, and museum spokespeople to provide quotations interpreting the sources for us.

Salam’s article fails to flag many of the most important misconceptions that others have debunked before: for example, Salam tells us:

The Mayflower did bring the Pilgrims to North America from Plymouth, England, in 1620, and they disembarked at what is now Plymouth, Mass., where they set up a colony. In 1621, they celebrated a successful harvest with a three-day gathering that was attended by members of the Wampanoag tribe. It’s from this that we derive Thanksgiving as we know it.

This design drawing for a stained glass window of Thanksgiving represents another candidate for America’s “first Thanksgiving,” a celebration that occurred in Jamestown, Virginia, on May 17, 1610. The drawing is by Heinrich Jan Van de Burgh, for J. & R. Lamb Studios, 1991. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. See the original here.

In fact, it’s generally accepted that Thanksgiving as we know it was derived from several sources: regional and local Thanksgiving events among European colonists, some of which predate the Mayflower and occurred in Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Maine; national days of Thanksgiving, which were proclaimed periodically by Congress –first the Continental Congress and then the United States Congress—beginning in 1777 (at which time no one in America knew about the feast of 1621); and Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of a day of Thanksgiving in 1863, in which he makes no mention of the events of 1621. (See the Library of Congress’s primary source set about Thanksgiving, this timeline of Thanksgiving events both before and after 1621, and this helpful blog post from Teaching with the Library of Congress.)

The American tradition of holding an occasional Thanksgiving holiday and the Plymouth colony’s 1621 event were first associated in the 1840s and 1850s, when the story of the colonists became generally known to Americans with the publication of Mourt’s Relation and Of Plymouth Plantation, which contain Winslow’s and Bradford’s respective accounts of the autumn of 1621. Since Americans had been celebrating regional and local Thanksgivings since before 1621, since the early national Thanksgivings, including Lincoln’s, were proclaimed without any reference to or knowledge of the events of 1621, and since the 1621 event in Plymouth was not itself a Thanksgiving, it’s fair to say that modern Thanksgiving was in no sense derived from the 1621 feast, although some people now take inspiration from the Plymouth story.

Even stranger are some of the Times’s claims about the 1621 event itself. They make a rather big deal of stating that “There’s no evidence that native people were invited.” They support this with a quotation from Kate Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the living history museum Plimoth Plantation: “The English-written record does not mention an invitation, and Wampanoag oral tradition does not seem to reach back to this event.” Sheehan suggests that it could have been an informal visit since the Wampanoag had their own fields close by, or a diplomatic visit. If one of these is the truth, she argues, the Wampanoag arrived without having been invited.

This seems to be hairsplitting, though. Winslow’s passage in Mourt’s Relation states:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little 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 amongst the rest their greatest 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.

While it’s true that the word “invitation” is not mentioned, if a party of ninety people was “entertained and feasted” for three days within the Plymouth settlement, does this not imply that they were at least invited to stay once they had arrived? Both Winslow’s and Bradford’s accounts stress the friendly relations between the colonists and the natives, and although this situation did not last, the English writers, writing immediately after the event, sound perfectly happy to have hosted their Wampanoag guests. Given most common meetings of the word “invited,” the Wampanoag were thus invited to stay, even if the invitation wasn’t issued until they arrived on the scene.

Probably the strangest claim made by Salam in the Times is the one about that favorite Thanksgiving dish, the turkey.  Under a heading proclaiming “There was no turkey or pie,” Salam tells us:

There was no mention of turkey being at the 1621 bounty…. If fowl graced the table, it was probably duck or goose.

There is simply no basis for the claim that there was no turkey, and Salam cites no source. First of all, it could not be clearer that fowl graced the table; there’s no reason to suggest that there’s any question about that. The passage from Mourt’s Relation mentions specifically that men were sent out to hunt fowl to make the meal more festive, and that they came back with enough for almost a week. While it’s true that Winslow doesn’t mention turkey, he doesn’t mention duck or goose either, so Salam shouldn’t claim without evidence or even a stated rationale that the fowl was “probably duck or goose.”

What’s more, there’s one more primary source which is relevant to the menu of the 1621 feast. It gives a list of foods the colonists ate in the autumn of 1621, and is generally accepted as a primary source for the menu of the 1621 event. This source is Of Plymouth Plantation, written by the governor of the colony William Bradford, who was also at the feast. Bradford specifically mentions that the colonists ate lots of turkey:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others 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; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.

Since Salam gives no source for the claim that there was no turkey on the menu, I have to guess at what the source might have been. It seems the claim was popularized by the novelist and food writer Andrew Beahrs, who included it in his book Twain’s Feast. Given that he repeated it in the New York Times some years ago, it seems likely he is the source. His own piece in the Times, which ran in the Opinion section, states:

The two early accounts of the meal tell us that the Wampanoag guests (who outnumbered the English settlers two to one) brought several deer, and that a party of Pilgrims returned from “fowling” with a good take. The latter almost certainly referred to ducks and geese, which migrate in autumn and could be taken much more easily than wary wild turkeys.

Gooseberries, wild plums and lobsters, as well as eels “trod” from the nearby salt marsh, completed a meal intimately bound to the surrounding land and water. Though corn prompted the celebration, and was doubtless included in pottages and stews, the centerpieces were all products of the bountiful yet intensely threatening natural world.

Oddly, then, Beahrs accepts that there are two sources, but he discounts one of them when it specifically mentions turkeys. He goes beyond what those sources actually state was enjoyed at the autumn feast by mentioning gooseberries, plums, lobsters and eels. These foods, just like turkeys, are mentioned in the sources, but not specifically in connection with the feast. Moreover, his reasoning that the fowl at the feast must refer to ducks and geese because turkeys were hard to catch is belied by Of Plymouth Plantation, which makes it clear that turkey was not just an occasional food item when the colonists were lucky, but a reliable source of food, of which they “took many” and had “great store.”

Faced with the same primary sources, my colleagues at the Library of Congress concluded that the menu included “wild turkeys, duck, geese, venison, lobsters, clams, bass, corn, green vegetables, and dried fruits.” How one could conclude from the evidence that turkey was specifically NOT on the menu, but lobsters were, is a mystery; it sounds more like a claim intended to be provocative than a reasoned interpretation of the sources.

And that, in the end, is the point. Wherever it appears, an article with the title “Most Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong” is likely to be striving for provocation over accuracy. Beware such articles’ claims; even the New York Times must survive in a clickbait jungle.

How can you tell more accurate articles from more sensational ones? The biggest red flags in Salam’s article are its failure to mention primary sources and its reliance on historians and popular interpreters, even while it specifically criticizes historians and popular interpreters for misrepresenting primary sources. (In fact, one of Salam’s main interview subjects works a for a museum with a vested interest in boosting the event at Plymouth as the origin of Thanksgiving, suggesting another reason to be skeptical.) So one rule of thumb might be to look for articles that tell you what the primary sources are, and that quote from those sources directly. Examples of such articles include this one from the Smithsonian institution, this one from Time Magazine, and (of course) the one you are reading right now!

In the case of the 1621 Plymouth feast, if you do read the sources, you’ll easily come to two conclusions: first, the colonists and their Wampanoag guests probably ate turkey supplied by the English, alongside venison supplied by Massasoit and his native friends; and, second, their holiday wasn’t in any real sense America’s “first Thanksgiving.”

Note added November 26, 2018

On November 29, 2017, one week after this blog post was published, the New York Times silently edited Salam’s article. They eliminated both the heading “There Was No Turkey or Pie” and the sentence “If fowl graced the table, it was probably duck or goose.” They also added a quotation from Tom Begley of Plimoth Plantation mentioning the the primary sources, the only time those sources are ever mentioned in the version of the article now online. In making these changes, they addressed many of the concerns I expressed in this post. Unfortunately, they did not acknowledge making the changes, leading some of my readers to think my criticisms might have been unfair and my quotations inaccurate.  You can find the original version of Salam’s article, with the inaccurate statements intact, and without mention of the primary sources, preserved at this link by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.


Thanksgiving Road Trip

The following is the fourth in a series relating to the Medal of Honor. Thanksgiving, with millions of Americans on the road, is one of the busiest travel seasons of the year.  If you’re doing the traveling this year, I implore you to try a new travel game: find the Medal of Honor landmarks/monuments across America, and the recipients […]