Posted on in Todd Talks by Todd Johnson

As the feast known as Thanksgiving approaches, I find myself thinking about the history of the event that we've been told inspired the holiday. Having an interest in history, I enjoy looking at what many people believe and what historical records tell us and comparing the two. The first Thanksgiving is a popular topic to research and, believe it or not, there are a few accounts and stories available.

I remember projects from elementary school involving native headdresses, pilgrim hats, and shoes with big buckles. And those may be grounded in truth. But I also remember images of pilgrims and Native Americans seated around long tables with so much food there was hardly room for anyone to enjoy the feast.

Here is what we do know about that first Thanksgiving in November 1621.

It was the first harvest for the colonists. The feast was a three-day event intended to celebrate the harvest. The previous winter was harsh, and many colonists died. It's estimated that, of the original 102 passengers who left Plymouth England in 1620, only about half survived to enjoy the feast. And from a record of the event, we know there were about 90 native Americans present. The Pilgrims were outnumbered nearly two to one.

Foods we associate with Thanksgiving are things like turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, gravy and of course, pumpkin pie. Well, we know that potatoes were not a popular item in 1621 – for the colonists or the natives – so they probably weren't on the menu. Records do indicate that the Pilgrims went "fouling," and wild turkeys were plentiful, so the modern staple was probably enjoyed by all in attendance, along with other game birds such as duck, goose, and swan. We also know that the natives supplied the colonists with five deer, so venison was provided. Colonists didn't have time to construct any ovens yet, so forget the pie. Plus, the sugar and butter supplies were pretty much depleted by this point, so deserts were probably hard to find. Something that surprised me – but it makes a lot of sense – is that there was a lot of seafood. Mussels, lobster, fish – maybe even oysters – were plentiful in the Plymouth area, so it's logical to expect them to have been part of the meal.

Today, we have the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and football games to entertain us before and after we eat our meal. The first Thanksgiving saw military exercises, target shooting competitions, singing and dancing for the adults, and games like tag, hide-and-seek, and probably some ring tossing games for the children.

Although we may be about 400 years removed from this inaugural event, one thing that remains the same is the concept of gathering with family and friends over delicious food to celebrate all there is to be thankful for.