Beer and eels: The rest of the ...
First Thanksgiving fable
Sunday, November 21, 2004 3:08 AM EST
We Americans will gather together Thursday with family and
loved ones to celebrate "the First Thanksgiving."
Yes, we'll be gathering, all right, and gobbling our weight
in turkey and trimmings. And though our thanks and gratitude
will be sincere, we'll be all wrong as to the time, place,
characters, menu and other circumstances of the occasion we
are honoring. That's because, contrary to the myth pounded
into the head of every elementary schooler, the First
Thanksgiving featured no Pilgrims, no Indians and no Plymouth.
No Miles Standish, no Squanto, no Massasoit.
The first Thanksgiving ceremony in North America took place
not in Plymouth in 1621, but near Jamestown, Va., on Dec. 4,
1619. Being a native of Virginia, such distinctions are of
Virginia's event was not a celebration, but a true
thanksgiving service held by 38 English settlers who had just
survived a perilous winter passage across the stormy Atlantic
in a small sailing ship.
Most Americans, it's fair to say, think the first English
settlement in North America was at Plymouth. Wrong again. The
first permanent settlement was Jamestown, founded in 1607 -
more than a decade before the Pilgrims got around to heading
Why the confusion about who thanked first? The Pilgrims,
with their silly hats, clunky-looking buckled shoes and
exaggerated Thanksgiving tale, made for an easier story to
sell to the public, especially children. Was there also a bit
of Yankee chauvinism and anti-Southern bias in the downplaying of the
Jamestown saga? Probably, in that a number of the country's
most prominent early historians and writers were from New
England. That region also was the heartland of abolitionism -
and the first slaves introduced in this country arrived via
By the time President Lincoln formalized the Thanksgiving
holiday (which he set for early December) during some of the
darkest days of the Civil War, the Jamestown Thanksgiving
service had been all but forgotten.
Later, President Franklin Roosevelt - hoping to extend the
holiday shopping period and spark the Depression-era economy -
moved up the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November. (No
one back then could have foreseen a time when the start of the
holiday shopping season coincided with the week before
Halloween. Before long, the Christmas shopping season will be
starting on the Monday after Labor Day.)
But we digress. Did those at the first Thanksgiving service
(the Virginia one!) chow down on basted turkey, giblet gravy
and cranberry sauce? Not likely. There might have been a
little food left after their trans-oceanic voyage, but
whatever it was, you can be sure it was unappetizing and in
short supply. (Death via starvation was a constant theme in
Jamestown's early years.)
The Plymouth event, on the other hand, was the continent's
first all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. That's how the story goes,
anyway. They did have turkey at Plymouth's thanksgiving,
Wrong yet again. Archaeologists who have dug through
Plymouth's remains say there is no evidence (that is, turkey
bones) of such birds having been consumed there until well
after 1621, according to University of Virginia professor and
archaeologist Jim Deetz.
If they didn't have turkey, what did they munch on? The 50
or so Pilgrims and their 90 Indian guests likely scarfed down
bread, corn, deer, fish, rabbit, squirrel and ... eel. Yes,
eel, says Deetz.
Eel was a dietary staple at that point in the Plymouth
settlement. (No wonder the Pilgrims were such Puritans.) The
English-speaking Indian Squanto had earlier shown the settlers
how to squish eels out of the mud with their bare feet.
So the Pilgrims didn't have turkey and weren't the first to
hold a thanksgiving. Is there anything their defenders can
Yes. The Pilgrims' feast probably featured copious amounts
of beer, Deetz says.
I don't think the First Thanksgiving fable would have had
the "legs" that it's had if celebrating Thanksgiving meant
having to gorge on eels and beer.
But maybe all that beer in 1621 explains how that
cock-and-bull story about turkey and the Pilgrims being first
got started in the first place.
Have a happy Thanksgiving!
Joe Kirby is Editorial Page editor of the Marietta Daily