What Did Thanksgiving Look Like In America In The 17th Century?

The First ThanksgivingAs we sit down to our Thanksgiving tables this year, and enjoy the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pumpkin pie,….. looking back in time, these foods were not necessarily what was available to the first settlers in early America in early 17th century.

According to food historian for Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, Kathleen Curtin, the Thanksgiving table had fruits such as cranberries and plums, and vegetables such as onions, squash, and artichokes. Crops which originally came from England may have included cabbage, parsnips, carrots with herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme. Wild game such as deer, fish and native birds would be widely available, and likely what they ate.

It is unknown if they had turkey, even though native Wampanoag Indians and English colonists were known to eat wild turkey.

The American turkey which our modern Thanksgiving is centered around would have been unheard of in Europe.

In fact, many plants today that make up our modern day diets were unheard of in Europe before they were brought from America. The first settlers in Plymouth planted barley and peas from England but their most important crop was Indian corn which they were shown how to cultivate by the native Squanto.

Corn, along with sweet potato, squash, pumpkins, peppers and tomatoes were foods that originated in the Americas and were unknown to most of Europe. These plants revolutionized life in Europe, Asia and Africa. The potato when brought to Europe became a staple in Ireland, England and throughout Russia and china, and became a fundamental food in West Africa where it was introduced by slave traders. They have estimated that there are over 640 food crops that are grown in Africa today, and all but 50 were brought from America.

In exchange, the Europeans brought to America the large range of grasses that we have here today. Grains such as wheat, barley, citrus fruits and cane all came from Europe.

“Thanksgiving day Among the Puritan Fathers in New England” Harper's Weekly, 1870. Courtesy the New York Historical Society.

“Thanksgiving day Among the Puritan Fathers in New England” Harper’s Weekly, 1870.

Courtesy the New York Historical Society.

Can you imagine life without the tomato?

A variety of chili peppers, and in particular the tomato were developed in Mexico and brought up to America and then around the world. The tomato is an essential component to many of our foods today, but for centuries it wasn’t consumed or even known about in much of the world. In fact, Europeans thought the tomato was poisonous, and at first was grown just as an ornamental plant, – a flower or visual purposes. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Europeans started to eat the tomato. The myths that the tomato was a morally dangerous vegetable to eat also penetrated the beliefs in those settlers in America. It was even reported that in the 19th century, a man in Newport, Rhode Island caused a huge sensation when he consumed a raw tomato in public. Today the tomato makes up a large amount of dishes that we couldn’t do without today.

In the late 16th century, courageous immigrants from England, France, Spain and the Netherlands settled in eastern North America, and it was this vast diversity of people from many regions around Europe that brought a rich flavor and unique characteristic to the new Americas.

Populations of people such as the Dutch from the Netherlands, the Swedes and Finns, the English Quakers that settled in Pennsylvania, and the English Puritans of New England, along with the French and Spanish people all brought their own centuries of traditions to this continent.

In their first years, the English colonists grew a few acres of barley and other vegetables, but adapting to a new life in America was a tremendous struggle. Planting food in a new land was difficult, along with battling with the native Indians caused many to die, and starve to death. Resources were few and far in between.

Today we can buy our turkeys instead of hunting them, and the fruit, and vegetables that have been brought into our local grocery store isn’t something that most of us toiled over through the summer months. For those who came from distant lands, struggled to get a crop going, the food at their Thanksgiving tables were cherished. They were preserved as best as they could, and when they gave thanks, they really were thankful to sit down for a nice meal.

We give thanks today for so many of the modern amenities that make life comfortable, and family and friends that we can enjoy our walk through this life with. Let us remember that today we have so much to be thankful for….so much more than we realize.

Happy Thanksgiving from our house to yours! Meranda and Michael

Originally Published On Hersite

Scale model of a 17th century English merchantman ship of about 400 tons, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, Dorset.

Scale model of a 17th century English merchantman ship of about 400 tons, Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, Dorset. The “Mayflower” in comparison, was estimated at 180 tons, 90-110 feet long, width 25 feet, though actual details are unknown.

The First Thanksgiving (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris American painter, 1863-1930

“The First Thanksgiving” (1915), by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris (American painter, 1863-1930).

Detail from The First Thanksgiving (1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936),  oil on canvas, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts.

“The First Thanksgiving” (1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936), oil on canvas, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts.