What Did the Pilgrims and Native Americans Eat at the First Thanksgiving?

November 23, 2020  - by 
First Thanksgiving paintings

Every year in November, many people in the United States gather with family for a giant feast. The traditional meal includes turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, glazed carrots, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, rolls—you name it. All the things the first Pilgrims and the native Wampanoag ate back in the year 1621, right?

Of course, we know that isn’t exactly accurate. For one thing, macaroni and cheese is definitely not a traditional Thanksgiving food, nor did the Pilgrims and Wampanoag have oven-safe dishes for baking green-bean casseroles. Or marshmallows. So, what did the Pilgrims eat during that very first Thanksgiving? Let’s take a deeper dive. The answers might surprise you.

1. Turkey

family at thanksgiving dinner looking at turkey

There’s a good chance the Pilgrims and Wampanoag did in fact eat turkey as part of that very first Thanksgiving. Wild turkey was a common food source for people who settled Plymouth. In the days prior to the celebration, the colony’s governor sent four men to go “fowling”—that is, to hunt for birds. Did they come back with any turkey? We don’t know for sure, but probably. At the very least, we know there was a lot of meat, since the native Wampanoag people who celebrated with the Pilgrims added five deer to the menu.  

2. Mashed Potatoes

mashed potatoes

Keep dreaming. At the time the Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving, most Europeans had never even seen a potato, let alone learned to mash them and drown them in gravy. Same goes for the Wampanoag. The history of the potato is as long as it is glorious and deserves its own article, to be sure. But to make a long story short, potatoes come from the high Andes of South America and weren’t really cultivated in North America until the 1700s. So, no, cross it off your list—mashed potatoes are not an original Thanksgiving side dish.

3. Cranberry Sauce

cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie

By fall 1621, the Pilgrims were essentially out of sugar. Translation—no cranberry sauce. Even with sugar, the Pilgrims still wouldn’t have used it to sauce cranberries. That’s because the tart little berry was new to them. Native Americans made dyes out of cranberries. But the day when the first man or woman would combine sweetened cranberries with a mouthful of stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, and white turkey breast in one satisfying, jaw-stretching bite was somewhere in the future.

4. Corn

corn with butter

It’s very, very likely the Pilgrims and Wampanoag ate corn for the first Thanksgiving—but not the frozen kind that you heat up in the microwave (obviously). Nor was it the boiled kind, the cobbed kind, the pudding kind, or the cornbread kind with little bits of sausage in it that only your great-aunt Suzie knows how to make. The corn the Pilgrims and Wampanoag most likely ate for dinner that day was the mushy, turned-into-a-thick-porridge kind that you slurp down with a spoon—or a finger, if that’s all you’ve got. From our perspective, nearly half a millennium later, corn porridge doesn’t sound especially good. But apparently if you mix in some molasses, it isn’t that bad.

5. Pumpkin Pie

pumpkin pie on table

Pilgrims liked pumpkins. According to accounts, they used to hollow them out, fill them with milk and honey to make a custard, and then roast the orange orbs in hot ashes. But when it came to making pies, the Pilgrims were essentially out of luck. You need butter and wheat flour to make a crust, and in 1621, the Pilgrims didn’t have much of either.  

6. Lobster

crawdads/lobster at thanksgiving

You probably don’t eat lobster for Thanksgiving—but the Pilgrims and Wampanoag might have. In fact, food historians speculate that much of the meal must have consisted of seafood. One of the colonists, a man named Edward Winslow, described the setting around his Plymouth home in this way: “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with a small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels . . . at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will.”

So, to the question “What did the Pilgrims eat for Thanksgiving,” the answer is both surprising and expected. Turkey (probably), venison, seafood, and all of the vegetables that they had planted and harvested that year—onions, carrots, beans, spinach, lettuce, and other greens. Was it good? Most experts agree that it must have been delicious; otherwise, it wouldn’t have become one of the most famous traditions of all time.

What about You?

Little girl eating corn at thanksgiving

Are you surprised to learn that the Pilgrims and their Wampanoag neighbors ate seafood and venison for Thanksgiving? Don’t be. This is the Big Feast we’re talking about—and adding your own personal twist to the traditional meal is, well, part of the tradition!

What are your family’s favorite Thanksgiving dishes? Have you ever taken a picture or recorded the recipe and uploaded it to FamilySearch.org? If so, you’re doing family history, which, by definition, is an awesome thing to do.

Go to Memories to get started. 

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  1. The Plymouth colony had lost half of their members. They had almost starved that winter, the harvest was slim harvest was slim, they were surviving on eel and clams some venison and now facing a new winter without promised supplies from England, they were desperate and discouraged, The feast was an effort to encourage the settlers and to thank God they still were living and facing another difficult winter trusting God to allow them to survive.