The First Thanksgiving

Nov 23, 2017

Have you ever wondered what the first Thanksgiving might have been like if held in Wisconsin? In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist examines that very question.

It seemed simple enough; I was going to refresh my memory on the first thanksgiving and write something about it. I vaguely recalled a story that in 1620 the pilgrims at Jamestown were struggling to survive and feed themselves, the Indians taught them how to farm and find food, and to celebrate a successful first year and a good fall harvest they put on a meal to celebrate and give thanks.

It turns out that there is no solid consensus on the genuine origins of the holiday we now call Thanksgiving, unless you count that Abraham Lincoln officially designated it a national holiday in 1863 “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” It took until 1939 for President Franklin Roosevelt to set the fourth Thursday in November as the official day for the holiday nationwide.

Depending on who you ask, the “first Thanksgiving” could have occurred in one of three places; Jamestown, Virginia; Plymouth, Massachusetts; or St. Augustine, Florida. Saint Augustine claims the first Thanksgiving was held there on September 8, 1565. The Spanish probably provided stores from their ships; a stew of salted pork and garbanzo beans, bread and red wine. The Indians, for their part, likely provided seafood for the feast.

Over half a century later, the settlers in Plymouth Plantation celebrated surviving their first year in a new land, and thanks to the local Indians, they had food stores to help them get through the coming winter. According to written accounts, they had wheat, corn, barley, squash, and beans. For proteins, they had venison, waterfowl, turkeys, fish, eel, clams and mussels, and a wide variety of nuts and berries. If it sounds like more than one meal, it was—it was a three-day celebration.

In developing this piece, I wanted to examine the question of what the first thanksgiving might have looked like had it occurred in Wisconsin. The great lakes tribes were also expert hunters and gatherers. They would collect what food they could for eating and preserving throughout the summer and fall; they would dry berries, harvest wild rice, and salt and dry fish and meat. In the fall they would eat foods that provided high protein and good fat content in preparation for the long, difficult winters we have. That means meats like ducks, geese, raccoons, porcupines, hare and deer would be on the menu. Wild rice was a very important grain, and would be roasted and dried. There may have been some turkeys around, further south in the state, but not likely in the large contiguous forests of the north. I suspect that a Northwoods thanksgiving might have been a combination of these typical fall foods, perhaps with some roasted nuts and dried berries.

In conducting background research, it is clear that religious pilgrims that came to the New World oftentimes held special services and feasts to give thanks. It is also clear that Native Americans were not only generous in sharing their food and knowledge, but held annual fall harvest and gathering celebrations. They knew how to live off the land, regardless of where they lived—hunting, fishing, trapping, and harvesting plants throughout the summer and fall would ensure they had what they needed to survive the winter.

While there may be endless debate about where the first Thanksgiving was held, or what month or year, it doesn’t really matter. Thanksgiving has become a very significant holiday in our nation, and its bounteous resources are at the center of it.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.