Was turkey really a part of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving feast?

Holidays & Special Events

By Kristy Tolley

Thanksgiving is a holiday that is celebrated annually in the United States and Canada. It is a time for gathering with family and loved ones, and giving thanks for the blessings of the year. One of the most iconic symbols of Thanksgiving is the turkey. However, have you ever wondered if the Pilgrims really ate turkey during their first Thanksgiving?

Contrary to popular belief, historians believe that turkey was not the main dish on the menu during the first Thanksgiving feast. While it is true that the Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together for a harvest feast in 1621, the exact menu of that meal is still a topic of debate among historians. There are no written records or diaries from the Pilgrims themselves, so much of what we know about that first Thanksgiving feast is based on some accounts from the time and other historical documents.

According to some historical accounts, the Pilgrims and Native Americans likely feasted on a variety of foods that were plentiful in the New England area during the harvest season. These foods may have included venison, seafood, corn, squash, and various types of fowl, such as ducks or geese. Turkey may have been present in some form, but it is unlikely that it played the prominent role that it does in modern Thanksgiving celebrations.

So how did turkey become the main dish of Thanksgiving? After the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers wanted to create a national identity for the newly independent United States. They looked back to the Pilgrims and their harvest feast as a symbol of American values and traditions. In the early 19th century, writer Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, and she promoted the idea of turkey being the centerpiece of the meal. Her efforts were successful, and Thanksgiving became a holiday in 1863, with turkey as the star of the show.

Debunking the Myth:

The belief that the Pilgrims ate turkey during the first Thanksgiving is a well-known myth that has been perpetuated for centuries. While turkey has become an integral part of modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations, there is little historical evidence to support the claim that the Pilgrims feasted on this bird at their gathering in 1621.

Firstly, historical accounts of the first Thanksgiving do not mention turkey as a central part of the meal. Instead, primary sources like Pilgrim Edward Winslow’s account describe wildfowl, which could have included a variety of waterfowl such as ducks or geese. Additionally, they mention deer as a significant part of the feast. These accounts suggest that the Pilgrims likely enjoyed a more diverse range of meats, rather than solely relying on turkey.

Furthermore, turkey was not a common ingredient in English cuisine during the 17th century. The Pilgrims, who were English settlers, would have more likely been familiar with other traditional meats like chicken or beef. In fact, it wasn’t until later centuries that turkey became more popular and accessible in England and America.

The myth of the Pilgrims eating turkey during the first Thanksgiving likely originated from romanticized depictions and narratives that emerged in the 19th century. This was a time when Thanksgiving as a national holiday was being established, and there was a desire to create a story of American unity and tradition. The image of the Pilgrims sharing a meal with Native Americans around a bountiful table, complete with turkey, helped to reinforce these ideals.

While turkey has undoubtedly become synonymous with Thanksgiving, it is essential to separate fact from fiction and recognize that the Pilgrims’ feast was likely quite different from the modern-day version. By debunking the myth of turkey at the first Thanksgiving, we can gain a more accurate understanding of history and appreciate the diversity of foods that were enjoyed during that time.

Primary Sources Accounts from the 1621 First Thanksgiving
Pilgrim Edward Winslow Described wildfowl and deer as part of the feast

Did the Pilgrims Actually Eat Turkey During Thanksgiving?

The tradition of eating turkey for Thanksgiving is deeply ingrained in American culture. Many families gather around the dinner table on the fourth Thursday of November to enjoy a feast centered around a beautifully roasted turkey. But did the Pilgrims, who celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621, actually eat turkey?

The truth is, we don’t have concrete evidence to prove that the Pilgrims specifically ate turkey during their Thanksgiving feast. The historical accounts of the event are somewhat limited, and while they mention fowl being consumed, it doesn’t specify whether it was turkey or another type of bird.

Turkeys were indeed present in the wild in the Plymouth area at the time, and they were a common source of food for the Pilgrims. However, there were also other types of birds like geese and ducks that would have been available to them. It’s quite possible that these birds were also part of the menu.

Furthermore, the Pilgrims’ harvest feast wasn’t only about meat. The celebration also included a variety of vegetables, fruits, grains, and seafood. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans who joined them for the feast would have enjoyed a wide range of locally sourced food.

Possible Foods Consumed at the First Thanksgiving
Turkey Geese Ducks
Corn Squash Beans
Pumpkin Fish Clams

It’s also worth noting that the modern tradition of serving turkey on Thanksgiving didn’t become widespread until the mid-19th century. Before that, different types of meat, such as goose or venison, were common choices for the holiday meal.

So while it’s possible that the Pilgrims enjoyed turkey during their first Thanksgiving, it’s also important to recognize that their feast was likely more diverse and inclusive of other foods. The turkey-centric Thanksgiving meal we know today is a product of centuries of tradition and cultural evolution.

Historical Origins:

The tradition of Thanksgiving dates back to the early 17th century when the Pilgrims, a group of English settlers, celebrated their first successful harvest in the New World. This event is now known as the First Thanksgiving and took place in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. However, the menu of the first Thanksgiving feast did not include many of the dishes that we associate with the holiday today.

The Pilgrims and their Native American guests likely enjoyed a meal that consisted of venison, wildfowl (such as ducks and geese), fish, shellfish, corn, fruits, and vegetables. While wild turkey may have been present at the feast, it is unclear whether it was served as part of the main meal. Turkeys were abundant in the New World at the time, and they were commonly hunted by both the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. However, historical records do not specifically mention turkey being served on that occasion.

The tradition of eating turkey on Thanksgiving likely developed in the centuries following the first feast. By the 19th century, turkeys had become a popular and affordable poultry option for Thanksgiving meals. President Abraham Lincoln officially proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, which further solidified the association between turkey and Thanksgiving. Today, turkey has become the centerpiece of many Thanksgiving dinners in the United States, but its presence at the original feast is still a topic of discussion among historians.

Traditional Thanksgiving Foods:

Thanksgiving is a time for gathering with family and friends and indulging in a delicious feast. Many people have their own traditional dishes that are served year after year. Here are some of the most popular traditional Thanksgiving foods:

  • Turkey: Roasted turkey is the centerpiece of most Thanksgiving meals. It is typically seasoned and cooked until it is tender and juicy.
  • Stuffing: Also known as dressing, stuffing is a mixture of bread, vegetables, herbs, and spices that is often cooked inside the turkey.
  • Mashed Potatoes: Creamy and buttery mashed potatoes are a must-have side dish during Thanksgiving. They are often topped with gravy.
  • Gravy: Gravy is a rich sauce made from the drippings of the roasted turkey. It adds flavor and moisture to the turkey and mashed potatoes.
  • Cranberry Sauce: Tangy and sweet cranberry sauce is a classic Thanksgiving condiment. It is often served as a side dish to complement the turkey.
  • Green Bean Casserole: This casserole combines green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and crispy fried onions. It is a popular side dish in many Thanksgiving meals.
  • Sweet Potatoes: Sweet potatoes are often roasted or mashed and topped with marshmallows or pecans for a sweet and savory side dish.
  • Pumpkin Pie: Pumpkin pie is a staple dessert during Thanksgiving. It is made from a spiced pumpkin filling baked in a flaky pie crust.

These traditional Thanksgiving foods have become symbols of the holiday and are enjoyed by people all over the United States. While the Pilgrims may not have eaten turkey during the first Thanksgiving, these dishes have become an integral part of the modern Thanksgiving celebration.

Throughout the years, several myths and misconceptions have emerged regarding the traditional Thanksgiving meal. These misleading beliefs often stem from popular culture or folklore, rather than historical facts. One of the most prevalent misconceptions is that the Pilgrims feasted on turkey during the first Thanksgiving in 1621. While turkey may have been part of the celebration, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that it was the centerpiece of the meal.

Another popular belief is that cranberry sauce was a staple of the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving feast. However, cranberries were not readily available to the Pilgrims at the time, and sugar, a key ingredient in cranberry sauce, was scarce. Therefore, it is unlikely that cranberry sauce played a significant role in the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving menu.

Similarly, the notion that pumpkin pie was a traditional dessert at the first Thanksgiving is also misleading. The Pilgrims did not have access to the ingredients necessary to make traditional pumpkin pie, such as pie crusts and sweetened condensed milk. Instead, they might have enjoyed cooked pumpkin or other simple desserts made from local ingredients.

Additionally, the idea that the Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered around a long, rectangular table to share their meal is a misconception. Historical records suggest that the meal would have been served buffet-style, with the food placed on long wooden tables or simply on large leaves.

Myth Fact
Turkey was the main dish No evidence to support this claim
Cranberry sauce was a staple Cranberries were not readily available
Pumpkin pie was a traditional dessert Pilgrims did not have the necessary ingredients
The meal was served on a long, rectangular table The meal was likely buffet-style

While these popular beliefs have become ingrained in the collective consciousness surrounding Thanksgiving, it is important to rely on historical evidence to separate fact from fiction. By shedding light on these misleading popular beliefs, we can gain a more accurate understanding of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving and the foods they may have enjoyed.

What Did the Pilgrims Really Eat?

The arrival of the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 marked the beginning of a tradition that is now celebrated as Thanksgiving. But what did the Pilgrims really eat during the first Thanksgiving?

Contrary to popular belief, the Pilgrims did not have a feast centered around turkey. Instead, the menu was likely much different than what is typically seen on modern Thanksgiving tables.

The Pilgrims were known to hunt and fish, so their diet often consisted of venison, duck, goose, and seafood. These were staple foods that provided sustenance during the harsh New England winters. They also grew their own crops and likely enjoyed dishes made from corn, pumpkin, and squash.

Interestingly, the first harvest feast that is now considered the first Thanksgiving may have included more seafood than anything else. The Pilgrims were joined by members of the Wampanoag tribe, who were skilled fishermen and hunters. Thus, it is believed that the feast included a variety of seafood such as lobster, clams, and mussels.

It is important to note that the Pilgrims did not have access to many of the spices and ingredients commonly used in modern Thanksgiving dishes. They did not have butter or wheat flour, so traditional foods like pumpkin pie and bread rolls were not part of their meal.

Overall, the Pilgrims’ diet during the first Thanksgiving was much simpler and more focused on the foods available in the Plymouth colony. While turkey may not have been the star of the meal, the historic feast represented a coming together of different cultures and a celebration of survival and gratitude.

The Role of Turkey in Modern Thanksgiving:

Turkey has come to symbolize the essence of Thanksgiving in modern times. It is the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving dinner table, not only providing a delicious meal but also serving as a nod to the history of the holiday.

Although historical records suggest that the Pilgrims may not have had turkey as the main course during the first Thanksgiving feast, it has become an integral part of the modern celebration. The tradition of serving turkey on Thanksgiving can be traced back to the early colonial period, when European settlers adopted Native American culinary customs.

The turkey’s prominence in today’s Thanksgiving feast can be attributed to its practicality and accessibility. Turkeys are large enough to feed a group of people, making them the perfect choice for a holiday that often involves extended family gatherings. Moreover, turkeys are widely available and relatively affordable, making them a popular choice for celebratory meals.

Another reason why turkey has become synonymous with Thanksgiving is the cultural significance it has acquired over time. The bird’s association with the holiday has been reinforced through various mediums, such as literature, art, and advertising. Images of a golden brown roast turkey often grace Thanksgiving-themed decorations, cookbooks, and commercials, reinforcing the belief that Thanksgiving is incomplete without turkey.

Besides its cultural importance, turkey is also a practical choice for Thanksgiving because of its versatility in cooking. From traditional roast turkey to smoked, grilled, or deep-fried variations, there are endless possibilities for preparing this bird. These cooking methods allow individuals to put their own twist on the Thanksgiving meal, tailoring it to their personal tastes and preferences.

Furthermore, turkey’s health benefits make it an appealing choice for those seeking a nutritious yet indulgent holiday meal. Turkey is a lean source of protein and contains essential nutrients such as vitamins B6 and B12, zinc, and selenium. It is also relatively low in fat, especially if the skin is removed, making it a healthier alternative to other meat options.

In conclusion, while turkey may not have been consumed during the original Thanksgiving feast, it has come to play a significant role in the modern celebration. It has become a symbol of abundance, family, and tradition, and its presence on the Thanksgiving table is now expected and eagerly anticipated by many.


Why Do We Eat Turkey On Thanksgiving?

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Kristy Tolley

Kristy Tolley, an accomplished editor at TravelAsker, boasts a rich background in travel content creation. Before TravelAsker, she led editorial efforts at Red Ventures Puerto Rico, shaping content for Platea English. Kristy's extensive two-decade career spans writing and editing travel topics, from destinations to road trips. Her passion for travel and storytelling inspire readers to embark on their own journeys.

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