Of course, the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock were not innocent exiles who unjustly had been banished from Europe. Instead, they were political revolutionists belonging to the Puritan movement which was seen as unorthodox and intolerable by England’s King James. William Bradford wrote in his diary that the voyage to the New World was motivated by “... a great hope for advancing the kingdom of Christ.”
When the Wampanoag watched the Mayflower passengers come ashore at Patuxet, they did not see them as a threat. “The Wampanoag had seen many ships before,” explained Tim Turner, a member of the Cherokee Nation and manager of the Plimouth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite. “They had seen traders and fishermen, but they had not seen women and children before. In the Wampanoag ways, they never would have brought their women and children into harm. So, they saw them as a peaceful people for that reason.”
The Wampanoag did not immediately greet the Pilgrims, still being cautious about the settlers and likely questioning their true motives. Turner explained that the English probably didn’t see any Wampanoag that first winter. It would not be until March 1621 that the Pilgrims entered into their first treaty of “mutual protection” with Ousamequin (Massasoit), the Pokanoket Wampanoag leader. “They didn’t sit down for a big turkey dinner, and it was not an event that the Wampanoag knew about or were invited to in advance,” Turner explained. In September or October, Turner said, the Pilgrims had just harvested their first crops, and they had a good yield. An account of the event was recorded by Pilgrim Edward Winslow who said four men were sent “fowling” (hunting game birds) and “exercised” their arms. “Most historians believe what happened was Massasoit got word that there was a tremendous amount of gun fire coming from the Pilgrim village, so he thought they were being attacked, and he was going to bear aid.”
When the Wampanoag followed the gunfire to the village, they were invited to join the Pilgrims in their feast, but there was not enough food to feed the chief and his 90 warriors. “He [Massasoit] sends his men out,” Turner said, “and they brought back five deer, which they presented to the chief of the English town (Bradford). So, there is this whole ceremonial gift-giving as well.”
What did they eat during the three-day feast? Likely venison said Kathleen Wall, a culinarian at Plimouth Plantation. “Not just a a lovely roasted joint of venison, but all the parts of the deer were on the table in who knows how many sorts of ways,” she said.
Was there turkey?
“Fowl” is mentioned in Winslow’s account, so it is possible that wild turkey was served, but not at all the type of hefty, white-meat bird people dine on today. Wall said there was probably a variety of seafood and water fowl served along with maize bread, pumpkin and other squashes. “It was nothing at all like a modern Thanksgiving meal,” Wall said.
The Wampanoag popularized to world culture the famous “three sisters” among vegetables: corn, beans and squash. The vertical corn stalks would support bean stalks, while the squash plant provided an excellent ground cover to retain moisture and provide a delicious addition to the meal. All of these vegetables could be kept for months and were stored quickly for food when needed. Also, the dry seeds could be used for planting the following spring.