The First Thanksgiving


Come, ye thankful people, come,

Raise the song of Harvest-home;

All is safely gathered in,

Ere the winter storms begin.

 Henry Alfred  1810-187

sunset over pond at BFP

 The First Thanksgiving

What is now called the First Thanksgiving was actually a Harvest Festival, popular in England, and, indeed, all over the world, including the New World. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians gathered at Plymouth in Nov. 1621 for an autumn harvest celebration, which took place over 3 days, an event regarded as America’s “First Thanksgiving.” (

But there would not have been a harvest or a Harvest Festival without the guidance and teaching of the Indians.

The seeds that the Pilgrims brought over from Europe–peas, barley, and wheat– did not grow well in this climate and soil.

The Indians taught them how to grow the Three Sisters– beans, corn, and squash.  Beans and corn were made into succotash; corn was also ground into flour.

They also taught them to catch fish, lobsters, and eels; to harvest clams, and oysters; and to trap and hunt game.

wild turkey

Wild Turkey photograph by Jack Shouba

There was wild turkey on the menu to be sure, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the turkeys that are bred for Thanksgiving nowadays.

carve turkey 2


ducks at Popple Lake

There would have been other fowl, as well:duck, geese, probably passenger pigeon.

Jim, Dick, Tim w: fish

There was a myriad of seafood:fish–cod and bass–and shellfish–mussels, clams, and oysters.

The 90 Indians who were invited supplied five deer–venison was very popular.

squash in wall planter on garage

Pumpkin and squash were abundant, but no pumpkin pie–there was no wheat flour for the crust, no sugar or spice for the filling, and no whipped cream.


Cranberries were abundant as were other berries:blueberries, blackberries, and elderberries that would have been dried.  There was no cranberry sauce–there was no sugar with which to make it.

Various nuts were available:acorns, chestnuts, black walnuts, hickory nuts.  Acorns were ground into flour.

And how did we pay back the Indians for their gracious hospitality?

Well, you know the rest of the story.

Here are some stats:

Canada  has over 600 recognized 1st Nation governments or bands with distinctive aboriginal cultures, language, art, and music.

Indian Population  851,560  2011

They have a National Aboriginal Day on June 21 every year.

United States, in May 2013, had 566 Native American tribes recognized by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs).

United States  2010 census 2.9 million 100% Native American

2.3 million part Native American

About 22% live on tribal lands (2010 U.S. Census).  There are 310 Indian Reservations.

How many in Illinois?       0

How many in Wisconsin?  6

How many in Michigan?  8

How many in Minnesota?  11

Indiana?  0  Ironic, isn’t it?  The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians were the only Indians left in the state after the end of the removals–their headquarters are in adjacent lands in Michigan.

Iowa? 1

The settlers and the U.S. Army pushed the Indians further north and west until there was no more place to go.

During the War of 1812, the British proposed  that Wisconsin and Michigan remain Indian Territory as a buffer between the English territory of Canada and the territory of the United States.  It was, of course,  rejected.  Removal  of the Great Lakes Indians was instigated, but the tribes of Wisconsin either refused to leave or, if they did, they came back.

More on Great Lakes Indians:

Wait a minute–isn’t this supposed to be a blog about native plants?  Why are we talking about Indians?

Because I think Indian reservations are the best places to restore native plants and eco-systems.

Native Americans have always been in touch with the Earth and its dynamics. Hunting and gathering are not simply activities done in order to make a living, they are a religion and a way of life. It is important to respect Native American beliefs within their cultural context.

“Over the last 500 years Indian cultures have experienced massive destruction, but the tide is changing,” said the Keepers of the Treasures report, which led to the establishment of the National Park Service Tribal Preservation Program to preserve not only their structures and their land, but their culture– their ceremonies, their skills, their music, their stories, their practices, their history.  The program’s 2014 grant awards celebrate the work of the Keepers—native stewards “who hold not only the keys to the tribal past, but the keys to the tribal future,” in the words of the report, as it marks its 25th anniversary.

Happy Harvest and Happy Thanksgiving to all!


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11 Responses to The First Thanksgiving

  1. Donna Czarnecki November 26, 2014 at 3:18 pm #

    Pat,thanks for this lovely article on Thanksgiving. It is so good to take time to reflect on what has led up to our celebration in the present.

  2. Donna Czarnecki November 26, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    see my comment above!

  3. Sue Harney November 26, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Thanks Pat. Maybe we’ll finally get in sync with the natural world. Native Americans can lead the way. Happy Thanksgiving!

  4. Carol Rauschenberger November 26, 2014 at 6:09 pm #

    Happy Thanksgiving Pat. I loved this post to remind us about our natural food too. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could use the Indian property between Dundee and Liberty for native plants…

  5. Ginger Duncan November 27, 2014 at 7:15 am #

    Very interesting write up about Thanksgiving, Pat! Hope you enjoy the day with your family!

  6. Barbara Arko Hargrove November 27, 2014 at 7:37 pm #

    Thank you for such a beautiful article on the honesty of the first Thanksgiving but especially of the integrity of the Native Americans and how they view the world as everyone and everything has a spirit and value.

  7. Margaret November 28, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    Thanks, Pat. I always enjoy your posts and comparing your wild garden with mine.
    Were you aware of the National Day of Mourning plaque at Plymouth? It starts out, “Since 1970 Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole’s Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the U.S.Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. …Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people…”
    You could google the rest of it, and I thank you for your post.

    • PatHill November 28, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

      No, I hadn’t heard of that–I’ll read more on it. I have heard that at least two cities–Austin, Texas, and San Francisco–celebrate Indigenous Day instead of Columbus Day.

  8. Susan T. December 2, 2014 at 8:48 am #

    In Wisconsin, where we pushed our native Americans, every Social Work Masters student is required to be knowledgeable about the Native American Indians. I was very impressed with their requirements at the graduate level. I suspect it is also required at the BS level. If mandates related to learning about cultural differences were more pervasive, perhaps we would not have a racial divide that causes misunderstanding. Thanks, Pat a great summary and a very nice educational perk

    • PatHill December 2, 2014 at 9:32 am #

      That’s good to know. Thanks for sharing. I’d like to see Tribal History taught in schools at every level.

  9. Carol Rice November 23, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    I very much enjoyed your post, Pat, and the link you created between the native peoples and native plants. Thanks, Carol

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