Venison vs Turkey: The Main Course at the First Thanksgiving

As fall turns to winter and leaves drop from the trees, Americans come together to celebrate the long-standing tradition of Thanksgiving, an event deeply embedded in the nation’s history. The picture of a golden-brown turkey at the center of a bountiful feast is deeply engraved in minds as a hallmark of the celebration, commemorating an event believed to be the first Thanksgiving in the New World. However, upon closer examination of the historical facts and shifting the lens through which we view the past, there emerges a high possibility that venison, rather than turkey, was the highlight of the first Thanksgiving meal.

Context of the first Thanksgiving

Unraveling the Historical Context of the First Thanksgiving

When dissecting the historical context of the first Thanksgiving, it’s crucial to address the facts and myths attached to this paramount event in American history. Documented accounts such as “Mourt’s Relation,” a pamphlet published in 1622 by Pilgrims Edward Winslow and William Bradford, serve as key sources of original insight.

Fact Check

Claim: Venison was most likely the main dish at the first Thanksgiving

Description: Analysis of historical records, understanding of cultural context in the 1600s, and dietary tendencies of both the Pilgrims and Native Indians suggests that venison, not turkey, played a central role in the feast of the first Thanksgiving.

Rating: Mostly True

Rating Explanation: While historical evidence provides strong substantiation for this claim, some interpretation and conjecture based on limited source material is necessarily invoked.

Firstly, the timeline: The commonly-believed date of the first Thanksgiving dinner is in November 1621, based on these primary accounts. However, they don’t specify the exact date. The celebration marked the Pilgrims’ first successful corn harvest in the New World, which followed an arduous winter marked by disease and death. The event didn’t become a national holiday until 1863, under President Lincoln’s declaration amid the Civil War. Therefore, the assertion that the first Thanksgiving took place in November 1621 is true.

Next, let’s venture into the guest list: It’s documented that 90 Wampanoag people and 50 Plymouth colonists, including women and children, attended the three-day feast. This contradicts the popular depiction of the event as a peaceful dinner attended only by male Pilgrims and Native American chiefs. Accordingly, the idea of a small guest list is false.

When it comes to the menu, accounts veer from our modern understanding of Thanksgiving delicacies. While it’s documented that five deer were presented by the Wampanoag guests, there’s no concrete evidence that turkey formed part of the feast, nor the traditional side dishes of potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. This particular mythology is based on the concept of what is commonly assumed rather than what is historically documented. Therefore, the traditional idea of a turkey-centered meal is decontextualized.

Finally, contrary to common belief, the occasion was not termed as ‘Thanksgiving.’ The Pilgrims held religious days of thanksgiving, but this was a secular feast, without specific religious observances. The term wasn’t related to this historical event until the mid-19th century when it was popularized in the works of writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who campaigned to make thanksgiving a national holiday. While the moniker is widely accepted today, the claim that the first feast was referred to as ‘Thanksgiving’ by the Pilgrims is unknown, based on the lack of historical evidence to support it.

In conclusion, the core historical data shed a different light on the traditional narrative that surrounds the first Thanksgiving. Despite embedded misconceptions, these facts, pulled from historical documents, serve us the reality, intricate and nuanced, of the early days of American history.

A depiction of the first Thanksgiving feast, showing Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered around a table full of food and giving thanks for a successful harvest.

Historical food sources of Pilgrims and Native Indians

From Hunting Grounds to Harvest: The Food Sources in the 17th Century Pilgrim-Native Relations

In investigating the historical records left behind by the Pilgrims, which encapsulate the broad strokes of their survival, a crucial pivot points towards their sustenance. Closer scrutiny shows an amalgamation of dietary practices, heavily influenced by the geography, climatic conditions, indigenous know-how and pre-existing culinary habits.

Evidence suggests that the colonists thrived on a combination of cultivated and foraged food. While attempts were made to grow familiar Old World crops like barley, peas, and wheat, poor soil and unfamiliar climate led to limited success. Instead, local produce became essential to their survival. Squash, pumpkins, and beans, all native foodstuffs, soon found favor, and were grown successfully in the New World soil.

Maize, or what we commonly know as corn, was a significant dietary staple, thanks to its adaptability to different climates and cultivation techniques. It was the Wampanoag tribe, with their years of agricultural expertise, who taught the Pilgrims to plant and harvest corn. Corn became the central pillar of their diet, consumed either as fresh or dried kernels, ground into flour, or included in stews.

Wild berries, nuts, and fruit were equally important food sources. Cranberries, strawberries, blueberries, and hickory nuts were seasonally harvested and commonly added to meals.

The Pilgrims also supplemented their diets with a variety of game meat. Venison, on record, was the major meat served at the reputed first Thanksgiving. Wading birds such as ducks, geese, swans, and even passenger pigeons also formed part of their food repertoire.

Though the concept of a community fish fry, popular in cultural imagination, might be decontextualized from reality, the Pilgrims did consume fish for sustenance. The abundant Atlantic coastline afforded the Pilgrims a wide variety of seafood, from cod and bass to mussels, clams and even lobster. They were also instructed in local fishing techniques by the Native communities.

The Wampanoag, an indigenous tribe living in the area, were critical in the survival of these early settlers. Their knowledge of cultivating indigenous crops, hunting techniques, and fishing skills they taught the settlers contributed significantly to the Pilgrim’s diet, and by extension, their survival.

In the 17th century scenario, the intersection of the Pilgrims and the Native Indian communities created a symbiosis where new foods were introduced and shared. The canvas of their food consumption spanned across the wild, the water, and the fields, revealing a complex, evolving culinary culture.

In conclusion, to restrict the food sources of the 17th century Pilgrims and Native Indians to a singular narrative does an injustice to their resourcefulness and adaptability. Their combined efforts and exchanges, on the basis of survival, resulted in a rich, varied diet that echoes down the centuries.

Image depicting various food sources - including vegetables, fruits, meat, and fish - consumed by Pilgrims and Native Indians in the 17th century for their survival.

Debunking the Turkey Tradition

The second part of the article aims to delve deeper into the food sources accessible to the 17th century Pilgrims, as well as the agricultural and dietary practices during the era. It must be emphasized that the diet of both the Pilgrims and the indigenous Wampanoag tribe was derived from the local environment and was geared towards survival and sustenance.

Diving into the agriculture of what is now northeastern United States, it is well-documented that Pilgrims, following their initial struggles, successfully adopted a number of agricultural practices that enabled them to cultivate crops adapted to the New World soil. This would have included maize, a dietary staple of the period, which was grown not for the production of corn-on-the-cob, as we understand it today, but rather for making cornmeal, a versatile ingredient for different dishes.

In addition to cultivated crops, wild food sources also held an important place in the diet. It was common for Pilgrims to gather wild berries, nuts, and fruits, not only for immediate consumption but also for preservation and storage.

Similarly, hunting also provided substantial sustenance. Contrary to modern Thanksgiving lore, it was more likely that feasters would dine on venison and wild fowl, including ducks and wading birds, rather than the traditional turkey we associate with the holiday. Fish and seafood, particularly shellfish, from the bountiful coastal waters, would have completed the diet.

It is also important not to overlook the role of the Wampanoag tribe and their agricultural wisdom in aiding the survival and eventual success of the Pilgrims. The introduction of new foods such as squash, beans, and corn, along with techniques for growing these crops, significantly enhanced the Pilgrims’ food sources and ensured their survival in the New World.

Through this culinary exchange between the English settlers and Native Indians, both groups displayed remarkable resourcefulness and adaptability. Their dietary choices were as vital for their survival as they were for forging connections.

The tradition of turkey as the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, it appears, does not hold historical truth. However, it does not undermine the cook’s resourcefulness, adaptability, and reliance on local food sources, which ensured survival and created a mosaic of culinary practices, some of which, in adapted forms, we continue to observe today.

Rating: Decontextualized.

The tradition of turkey at Thanksgiving is not historically accurate but rather a construction of the modern era. It is essential to understand Thanksgiving within the broader historical and cultural context in which it arose. Despite the inaccuracy, the tradition persists as a representation of the holiday’s spirit of gratitude and togetherness.

Image depicting Pilgrims gathering and growing food in the 17th century

Historical perspective of Venison as the main dish

Building upon the context previously offered, it’s necessary to dive deeper into the specific factors suggesting venison as the likely centerpiece at the inaugural Thanksgiving feast. Drawing from historical records, primary sources include the excerpt from Edward Winslow’s letter dated December 11, 1621, in which he reported to a friend in England about the bounty of the first Thanksgiving and explicitly mentioned: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might…rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors…at which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us…with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they…went out and killed five deer, which they brought…And although it be not always so plentiful as it was this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want.”

From this firsthand account, two significant observations can be made. First, the reference to “five deer” slaughtered by the Native guests clearly underscores the substantial role that venison likely played in the feast. Second, the narrative’s emphasis on community and abundant food provision supports the venison’s centrality given that deer was a common game meat easily shared among a large community, unlike smaller fowl or fish species.

Moreover, another historical document, “Mourt’s Relation,” which was published in 1622 and provides a detailed account of life in Plymouth, also mentions deer hunting during that period, further supporting the probability of venison’s presence at the first Thanksgiving.

Finally, nutritional and food preparation practices lend credibility to this theory. Deer meat offers high nutritional value, a critical component for survival in a demanding environment, whereas wild turkey — a popularly believed “main course” — though present in the area, wouldn’t have offered such dietary benefit nor volume.

In the spirit of accuracy, though, it is equally important to point out the limitations of the historical record. Detailing specific meals from centuries past is challenging, and none of these sources itemize the feast’s courses. Assumptions about the fare are derived from broader knowledge about the era’s dietary and hunting practices.

Trusting in the above information, it can be seen to be plausible, and potentially likely, that venison was a significant, if not the main, dish served at the first Thanksgiving. As always, the rating of this claim still depends greatly on one’s interpretation of the available evidence, which in this case is primarily written accounts from the period. A judicious evaluation based on the data at hand might categorize this claim as decontextualized, relying on certain conjectures about historical practices and interpretive leaps from scant source material.

A succulent dish of venison, perfectly cooked and garnished with aromatic herbs and spices.

History is a fluid tapestry, woven from diverse threads of experience, documentation, and interpretation. Sometimes, our deepest traditions and assumptions can be challenged when we delve more deeply into the fabric of the past. With the combination of historical records, understanding of the cultural context in the 1600s, and the dietary tendencies of both the Pilgrims and Native Indians, a stronger case could indeed be made for venison as the main dish of the first Thanksgiving. This does not take away from the tradition but rather provides a broader perspective on our shared past and how it shapes our present. Whether it be turkey, venison or even seafood, the essence of Thanksgiving lies not in the feast but in the gratitude, unity and heartfelt celebration that it continues to symbolize.