Nathaniel Philbrick: Thanksgiving without the myths

Historians in the News

"For me," says Nathaniel Philbrick, "Thanksgiving has always been the best, most fun family holiday."

Mr. Philbrick is a resident of Nantucket and the author of such acclaimed histories as "In the Heart of the Sea," the National Book Award-winning story of the whaleship Essex. His latest effort, "Mayflower," was released in May and immediately jumped to the New York Times bestseller list, where it spent more than four months. His life is settling down now after a three-month tour that took him from coast to coast promoting his book. This fall, he's finding time to reflect on the powerful connection "Mayflower" made with American readers, and how this project has changed his perspective on the holiday that harks back to the popular story of Pilgrims and Wampanoags who feasted together in the autumn of 1621.

"I think that with this book," Mr. Philbrick says, "this is going to be a different Thanksgiving for me. It's been an emotional year - I'm still working this book over in my mind, and this Thanksgiving, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens."

"Mayflower" shines a historian's light on the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. It also places the early adventures of the settlers in the context of a larger story that most of us weren't taught in school - the tenuous peace between settlers and Native Americans that lasted for two generations before disintegrating, in the 1670s, into what was arguably the bloodiest conflict in our nation's history, King Philip's War.

Author describes an unadorned first Thanksgiving

Following are excerpts from Nantucket author Nathaniel Philbrick's book, "Mayflower," an account of the voyage of the Mayflower, the settlement of Plymouth Colony and the savage conflict known as King Philip's War that ended years of relative peace between colonists and natives.

"We do not know the exact date of the celebration we now call the First Thanksgiving, but it was probably in late September or early October, soon after their crop of corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas had been harvested. It was also a time during which Plymouth Harbor played host to a tremendous number of migrating birds, particularly ducks and geese, and Bradford ordered four men to go out "fowling." It took only a few hours for Plymouth's hunters to kill enough ducks and geese to feed the settlement for a week. Now that they had "gathered the fruit of our labors," Bradford declared it time to "rejoice together ... after a more special manner."

The term Thanksgiving, first applied in the 19th century, was not used by the Pilgrims themselves. For the Pilgrims a thanksgiving was a time of spiritual devotion. Since just about everything the Pilgrims did had religious overtones, there was certainly much about the gathering in the fall of 1621 that would have made it a proper Puritan Thanksgiving. But as Winslow's description makes clear, there was also much about the gathering that was similar to a traditional English harvest festival - a secular celebration that dated back to the Middle Ages in which villagers ate, drank, and played games.

Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen doth, clasping each other's hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on. Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement with five freshly killed deer. Even if all the Pilgrims' furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages - stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown - simmered invitingly.

In addition to ducks and deer, there was, according to Bradford, a "good store of wild turkeys" in the fall of 1621. Turkeys were by no means a novelty to the Pilgrims. When the conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century, they discovered that the Indians of Central America possessed domesticated turkeys as well as gold. The birds were imported to Spain as early as the 1520s, and by the 1540s they had reached England. By 1575, the domesticated Central American turkey had become a fixture at English Christmases. The wild turkeys of New England were bigger and much faster than the birds the Pilgrims had known in Europe and were often pursued in winter when they could be tracked in the snow.

The Pilgrims may have also added fish to their meal of birds and deer. In fall, striped bass, bluefish, and cod were abundant. Perhaps most important to the Pilgrims was that with a recently harvested barley crop, it was now possible to brew beer. Alas, the Pilgrims were without pumpkin pies or cranberry sauce. There were also no forks, which did not appear at Plymouth until the last decades of the seventeenth century. The Pilgrims ate with their fingers and their knives....
Read entire article at Martha's Vinyard Times

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/25/2006

Your theories are interesting, but I have been reading Bradford in snatches over the past 40 years, via the Mayflower quarterly, and have come to the same conclusions as the Wall Street Journal. Of course the Pilgrims were in debt at first, but their pattern of prosperous growth--and yes, their Protestant work ethic--really caught on after they were allowed to have their own farms, and the Pilgrims have always been lauded for giving the first shove to begin
the fantastic growth and progress that came across this continent, and I am old fashioned enough to believe that our sturdy tree grew as they bent the twig.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 11/24/2006

Mr. Hughes, Perhaps you should read the books (Philbrick's and Bradford's) carefully and analytically before imagining what either of them says. The Pilgrims did not have communal living; their colony and its activities were mortgaged under thoroughly capitalist terms. Bradford partly "told it like it was" and partly adapted his narrative to fit political concerns of the 1640's when he was writing. See my article "A Level Look at Land Allotments, 1623" online at:

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/23/2006

I don't think King Philip's War is the part that is untaught. The untaught story is how they booted out communal living after half of them died in the first year or two, and adoped a system which recognized private property, under which they prospered and multiplied. I haven't read his book, but from its prizes and friends I suppose Philbrick is a typical liberal who wouldn't dream of telling the Pilgrim's failures under communal living, and their subsequent successes when allowed to have private property. Thank God William Bradford told it like it was, and no liberal revisionist has been able to destroy his journal. Yeah, there's something to give thanks for!!!