A Place at Our Table
By Stephen Tuttle | Nov. 18, 2023
We typically celebrate Thanksgiving without much thought of how it all started and if it was even an especially good idea for one group of initial celebrants.
According to the History Channel, the first Thanksgiving took place in October of 1621 in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Historian Edward Winslow puts the time as November of 1621 but agrees with the location.
In attendance were the 53 survivors of the Mayflower’s original 102 passengers and 90 members of the local Wampanoag Nation representing several tribes. The festivities lasted three days, but it’s not clear if a fine time was had by all. The Europeans were ill-prepared for conditions and life in the New World and were poor farmers and hunters. Nearly half those who came ashore did not survive beyond the first year.
The local Wapanoag, in what turned out to be a serious strategic mistake, offered some help, assisting the newcomers lest they all starve and perish. Those Pilgrims had subsisted on what was easiest for them to capture, harvest, or kill so their diet was heavy on seals, lobster, and swans. (Interesting aside: According to TastingTable.com, lobsters were once so plentiful along the New England coast they were considered the “poor man’s chicken” and were regularly fed to prisoners and slaves and used as fertilizer.)
There is no official record of the menu that first Thanksgiving, but it’s likely the new arrivals provided their normal fare. The Wampanoag are thought to have brought venison and may have also contributed bear, game birds, and whatever fruits or vegetables were still available.
In 1621, the Wampanoag Nation was thriving with 67 separate tribes and close to 50,000 tribal members controlling an area from what is now Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod all the way to the shores of Narragansett Bay just off today’s Rhode Island. For their ongoing assistance and generosity on that first Thanksgiving, they were subsequently systematically displaced, accidentally sickened, and intentionally murdered and enslaved. Today, just more than 4,000 Wampanoag still survive scattered among more than half a dozen Massachusetts communities. As you might guess, our Thanksgiving is a day of mourning for them and many other indigenous people.
(In another aside, the first person killed in the Boston Massacre in 1770, lighting the fuse that exploded into the American Revolution, was Crispus Attucks, a Wampanoag tribal member.)
That initial gathering we like to call the first Thanksgiving certainly did not start any kind of tradition. Indigenous folks quickly learned there was zero benefit to helping the invading Europeans, so while there was still some cooperation between the two groups, it did not last long.
We then went more than 150 years without much mention of any kind of holiday or feast called Thanksgiving. In 1789, George Washington issued the first official government Thanksgiving proclamation, and according to MountVernon.org, he did so to thank God for caring for America prior to the revolution and for help in achieving independence and establishing a constitutional government. Not exactly warm and fuzzy, and friends and family were still not gathering for festive meals at the time.
Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving primarily to remember the widows and children left behind by the still raging Civil War. We soon became attached to the day. In 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt tried to move it to the third Thursday in November, hoping to spur retail sales during the Depression, so great was the public outcry he had to move the holiday back to the fourth Thursday in November, where it remains to this day.
We’ve created a major holiday, but we aren’t the only country with a Thanksgiving. Canada celebrates theirs, mostly an end-of-harvest event, the second Monday in October. Grenada takes a different approach altogether, using Oct. 25 to commemorate the U.S. and our Caribbean allies’ military victory there in 1983. Saint Lucia celebrates the first Monday in October and Liberia the first Thursday in November. Several other countries, including Brazil and the Philippines, moderately celebrate unofficial thanksgiving days.
For many of us, Thanksgiving is the best of holidays. It does not require the expense and stress of shopping and gift-giving, though all of us should probably help out whoever has to buy all that food. Nothing requires another shoulder-to-shoulder venture into a store to return and exchange something. It’s not strictly a family day, so those away from home can almost always find a welcoming chair at a friend’s table.
But we should remember as we’re so enjoying the day that it isn’t a day for which everyone gives thanks. For some of our neighbors, it’s a day they mourn what was lost starting four centuries ago. It’s past time we made a place for them at our table, too.