Although many of today's Thanksgiving tables will feature a roast turkey and other traditional foods, the menu at the first Thanksgiving was probably very different. From seafood to carrots, historians report that what was eaten at the first Thanksgiving probably didn't include a lot of today's traditional favorites. The menu offers a fascinating glimpse at what life was like during the 1620s and how the celebration has changed over the years.
Historical Records About Foods at the First Thanksgiving
In a letter dated December 11, 1621, Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow offers some of the only historical information about what they ate at the first Thanksgiving. After noting that the colonists had harvested a good crop "Indian corn" and an acceptable crop of barley but lost their crop of peas to too much sun, Winslow talks about the harvest feast.
"They four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week," he wrote, of the four men the governor sent to kill fowl. He also noted that the Indigenous people who feasted with them for the three-day celebration "...went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation."
While he mentions other specific foods in his letter, he does not say whether the group ate these as part of the feast. However, his notes about which foods were abundant during the season and other historical documents about the resources of the time offer some clues about foods at the first Thanksgiving.
Likely Menu of First Thanksgiving Foods
Based on the historical information from the time, these are probably some of the foods from the first Thanksgiving. Remember that Winslow notes that it was a three-day feast with enough food to feed everyone for almost a week. Just like we do today, they must have eaten leftovers for days; the foods were just different from a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, if turkey was eaten at the first Thanksgiving, it would have been only a side dish. More likely, the first Thanksgiving menu probably included ducks, geese, and passenger pigeons. Instead of stuffing them with bread, as many people do with their Thanksgiving turkeys today, the colonists may have stuffed the birds with herbs and onion pieces to give them flavor.
Winslow mentions five deer that the Wampanoag brought to celebrate the harvest. Historians believe these deer were probably roasted on a spit over an open fire. Colonists may have made a venison stew with the leftover meat as well.
Fish and Shellfish
In his letter, Winslow also notes that fish are incredibly abundant in the new colony. He says that they have more than they could need and that they can harvest barrels of eels in the fall. Shellfish were also easy to find, with mussels being available all winter and oysters a frequent gift from the Wampanoag.
Cornmeal Mush or Pottage
Because Winslow notes that the corn harvest was plentiful, it's likely the Pilgrims may have enjoyed corn at the first Thanksgiving. However, it would not have been corn on the cob. After the harvest, the colonists would have left the corn on the cob and parched or dried it for storage. They could then grind the dried corn into cornmeal and may have made cornmeal mush or pottage to serve at the dinner. Because it was a three-day feast with several days of leftovers, the pottage may have been made with broth from some of the wild fowl to give it flavor.
Dried Beans and Squash
The Plimoth Patuxet Museum offers detailed information about how the Wampanoag grew and preserved crops and taught the Pilgrims how to do the same. Like many Indigenous people, the Wampanoag grew the "three sisters" of corn, beans, and squash. Although Winslow's letter does not specify that the colonist enjoyed beans or squash, it's likely they may have. The Wampanoag dried both crops for preservation, and beans and squash may have been cooked in water or broth to eat at the first Thanksgiving.
Carrots and Turnips
While Winslow doesn't mention root vegetables in his letter about the harvest celebration, they may have been some of the foods eaten at the first Thanksgiving. Plimoth Patuxet Museum notes that the Pilgrims grew carrots and turnips in their gardens. If kept cool in a cellar, these vegetables could last for months. It's likely they may have been part of the feast, possibly mixed in with onions and other veggies to make a stew.
Walnuts and Chestnuts
Another letter, written by William Norton in November of 1621 does not specifically address the foods at the harvest celebration but does talk about the things the colonists ate. Norton mentions walnuts, chestnuts, and other small nuts as part of the food available to Pilgrims. Nuts may have been part of stuffings and stews eaten at the first Thanksgiving, or they may have been roasted and eaten on their own.
In his letter, Norton talks about the wealth of fruit available to the colonists, which they probably dried to preserve it. "The country [is] very pleasant and temperate, yielding naturally, of itself, great store of fruits, as vines of divers sorts in great abundance," he writes. "No place hath more gooseberries and strawberries, nor better."
Because the colonists did not have easy access to sugar, they probably ate these fruits without it. There may have been some maple syrup or honey from the Wampanoag, but this would have been precious. It's likely that if fruit was a first Thanksgiving food, it was served dried or stewed.
A Moment of Peace at the First Thanksgiving
Although Winslow's letter about the harvest celebration is an important historical document, what the Pilgrims ate at the first Thanksgiving was almost certainly less important than the relationship they hoped to forge with the Wampanoag people. At the time the Mayflower arrived, the Wampanoag had already lost many people to diseases probably related to earlier contact with Europeans. They were under threat from nearby tribes and likely received European weaponry in trade for some of the food and knowledge they shared with the colonists. In the present day, only about 4,000 to 5,000 Wampanoag survive of the 60,000 who lived in the Plymouth area in the 1600s.
The meal represented a rare moment of peace between settlers and the Indigenous people, and that peace is just as notable as the food mentioned in Winslow's letter. The gratitude for the harvest and the temporarily peaceful relationship were the real reason they were celebrating. "We for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood, as in the highways in England," he writes. "We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us."