What We Can Learn From the First Thanksgiving

Last Update: September 28, 2022

Thanksgiving is an annual holiday that unites people of all types around the same table. It’s about family, feasting, and giving thanks.

While the story and traditions of Thanksgiving have been passed down for generations, what can often be overlooked is what we really learned from that very first banquet between the Pilgrims the Wampanoag tribe in 1621. As you gather with your family this year, consider these important lessons they imparted that can continue to be practiced, even today.

Lessons in sustainability

In mid-September of the year 1620, the Pilgrims departed from England with the hopes to seek religious freedom in the New World. After a 66-day voyage at sea they finally came ashore. Though they had originally intended to settle near the Hudson River in New York, dangerous conditions and strong winds forced their ship to seek coverage in Cape Cod, New England.

Upon their arrival, many kissed the ground, thankful to be on solid land once again, and perhaps also in gratitude for the chance to be able to grow and forage since their fresh food supply had run out one month prior.

They sent out a small party to explore the land, and in mid-December docked at Plymouth Rock, on the west side of Cape Cod Bay. Lead explorer, John Smith, named the land Plymouth, in homage to their Mayflower ship that had sailed from the port of Plymouth in England.

Many Pilgrims brought with them seeds, knowing that a community wasn’t really sustainable without a garden and crops to source food. In their first year, the attempts initially failed, as the Pilgrims were unaware of how the seasons played out on the East Coast, and many perished due to poor nutrition.

It was soon after this first harsh winter that the colonizers came into contact with Samoset—or Squanto—the English-speaking leader of the Wampanoag tribe who was ultimately the main source of communication between the two groups. Samoset and his fellow tribesmen were experts at hunting, fishing, and harvesting, having done so for generations before the Pilgrims’ arrival. The Wampanoags knew when to plant and when to harvest, where the soil was rich, and where the fish and meat were plentiful.

Seeing the Pilgrims struggle to keep their men alive and fed, the Native people taught them how to live a sustainable life by growing their own crops and hunting their own food. Even today, growing your own food requires getting to know the local growers in your area who are familiar with the soil and in-season crops. While modern technology has made a lot of relevant information accessible online, by interacting with growers in your region you are promoting an education-based community that can work together towards the common goal.

The joy of food

Back when Samoset visited the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony, he offered knowledge of the land and taught the colonists how to grow their own corn quickly. This initial act of sharing food-growing techniques sparked the first collaboration between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, and hints at something we all know in our gut—that food has a natural way of bringing people together.

Thanks to the teachings of the Wampanoag tribe, the Pilgrims enjoyed a successful first harvest a year later, in 1621. To celebrate, Plymouth Governor William Bradford organized a three-day feast and invited the Wampanoag tribe to join at the table—this was known as the very first Thanksgiving.

Though, the spread at the table was quite different than the modern one we know today—back then, the food came fresh from the land so there was no baking a turkey in the oven, cracking open a can of cranberries, crumbling cornflakes over green bean casseroles, and definitely no pumpkin pie.

Rather, the first Thanksgiving meal consisted of venison, shellfish, pumpkin, squash, corn, and fresh berries, making it completely Paleo. Although wild turkey was native to the land, the Pilgrims were not successful in catching any, so they opted for other birds such as duck and geese. In the years following, settlers became more strategic at catching turkeys, which is why it’s now eaten across Thanksgiving tables.

It wasn’t until 200 years later, in the 19th century, that the celebration become an annual tradition, with the idea of Thanksgiving spreading rapidly across the country and many cooks modifying their Thanksgiving menu by preference and availability. This of course varied by region, which is why Thanksgiving can be slightly different from coast to coast.

Even today, people use fresh produce and seasonings available in their region. For example, in New England, crab is a local favorite and often shows up on an appetizer platter or in a dressing, and in Texas you can find chiles and southwestern flavors in many holiday dishes. In the state of Washington, hazelnuts are often used in stuffings and desserts, while in Key West a key lime pie next is often situated next to a pumpkin pie at the dessert table.

Know what’s in season where you live

It’s important to know what fruits and vegetables are in season where you live, because they vary based on the climate of your region. While supermarkets may have an abundance of fresh options, try going to a farmers market or local grower in your area to see what fresh, organic produce they carry. Not only is this stimulating your local economy, but it promotes the practice of sustainability. Check out this helpful guide to determine what produce is in season at any time of the year.

Curious what’s in-season more locally where you live? Find out here with a state-by-state guide of what produce grows every month. In general, these popular fruits and vegetables are grown in the fall:

  • Acorn squash
  • Barbados cherries
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Butter lettuce
  • Butternut squash
  • Cactus pear
  • Cauliflower
  • Crab apples
  • Cranberries
  • Date plum
  • Diakon radish
  • Endive
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Grapes
  • Guava
  • Hearts of palm
  • Huckleberries
  • Jalapeno peppers
  • Jerusalem artichoke
  • Key limes
  • Mushrooms
  • Ong choy spinach
  • Passion fruit
  • Pear
  • Persimmons
  • Pomegranate
  • Pumpkin
  • Quince
  • Sunflower kernels
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Swiss chard
  • Turnips

Give thanks

While we may get carried away with holiday feasting and football, it’s important not to forget the intent of the first Thanksgiving. One way you can give thanks is to look back on your year and write a list of everything that fills you with gratitude. You can also get your loved ones involved and share responses at your Thanksgiving celebration, and in so doing, create your own traditions.

And, if you really want to do things they way the Pilgrims and Native Americans once did, start planting your own fruits and veggies right in your backyard, or at your local community garden. Once your harvest is ripe and ready, host a dinner with family and friends and neighbors, and give thanks for your own successful harvest.

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Emily Murphy

Emily lived most of her life in Orange County before relocating to Chicago, followed by NYC. She recently made her way back to the West Coast and now lives in Los Angeles with her adorable cat, Charlie Murphy. Her background is in Copywriting & SEO for Fortune 500 companies, and also worked as an assistant editor and blogger for different brands in the fashion industry during her time in NYC. Aside from her love of writing and eye for style, Emily likes to travel, read anything Anthony Bourdain related, and go on spontaneous adventures.

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