baking, fall, history lesson, holidays

The "First" Thanksgiving (III)

Last week we looked at some of the myths surrounding the original Thanksgiving. We’ve explored how the Pilgrims were not, in fact, Pilgrims, and how the First Thanksgiving wasn’t the homey, pastoral scene we’re taught in school. Today we’ll look at the final piece of the puzzle: the idea that the Native Americans and the English colonists got along splendidly.


The Myth of Anglo-Native Cooperation

In 1621, the English colonists wanted to give thanks for surviving a terrible First Winter in the New World. Governor William Bradford ordered his men to hunt some wildfowl to cook at the feast. Massasoit, one of the sachems (leaders) of the local Wampanoag tribe, heard about the feast and brought a tribute of five deer to present to the governor. This was a sign that the Wampanoag respected the governor, and, by extension, the colonists he governed. Then Massasoit and many of his tribe members joined the English in their feasting, which lasted for 3 days.

Sounds perfectly cordial and lovely, right? Unfortunately, this feast was probably more like a wary meeting than a jolly mixer between ethnic groups. It was probably difficult for the colonists and Natives to communicate with each other, and the colonists were famously nervous about Native American dress, behavior, and habits. Even their methods of cooking food were different.

Similarly, the Wampanoag were probably suspicious of the colonists. In their first few months in the New World, the English hadn’t treated the Wampanoag very well: members of their colony had “borrowed” corn and stolen personal items from the Natives. So this meeting between Massasoit and Governor Bradford may have been an attempt towards cordial relations between the two groups.

That’s not to say that all interactions between the Natives and the colonists were negative. Earlier that spring, the Wampanoag had helped the English plant corn. This is where Squanto, the one Native we do learn about in elementary school, comes in. He taught the English how to deal with American soil and how to fertilize the corn, as well as what plants would grow well with it. After a long, harsh winter, the English were most likely relieved to have a friendly guide to this new land.

In the end, this 1621 Thanksgiving did not create peaceful relations between the colonists and the Wampanoag. It did not lead to annual feasts between the two groups–we’ve already seen that the colonists didn’t approve of annual holidays. What’s more, things steadily deteriorated between Natives and colonists until 1675, when King Philip’s War broke out. After a bloody, vicious war, the English soundly defeated the Wampanoag forces and enslaved many of their women and children. The colonists then became the undisputed rulers of the Massachusetts Bay region.

The early conflicts between Natives and colonists were some of my favorite topics when I taught US History. They’re a sobering example of how two groups were absolutely unable to understand each other, and therefore declared war on each other. It’s heartbreaking to study the true history of the early colonies, because there are so many other stories like this one.

And though the Natives and the colonists were ultimately unable to cooperate with each other, their foodways still influenced each other. Colonial cooking bears the marks of Squanto’s early efforts. Whenever colonial recipes call for cornmeal, they call it “indian meal,” probably because they associated corn with the Natives who taught them how to grow it. So this pudding is a mixture of Old World and New, of English pudding and Native ingredients.

our full historical Thanksgiving feast (pudding in the foreground)


Indian Pudding
(slightly adapted from Giving Thanks: Thanksgiving Recipes and History, from Pilgrims to Pumpkin Pie)

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup cornmeal
2 cups milk
1 large egg
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup molasses
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/8 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Grease a medium ovenproof dish.

Whisk together the cornmeal and water in a small bowl until smooth. Scald 1 1/2 cups of the milk in a medium saucepan (heat until bubbles form on the surface) and whisk in the cornmeal mixture. Boil for 15 minutes until the mixture is thick. Remove from heat.

Beat the egg in a small bowl, and add several spoonfuls of the cornmeal mixture to the egg until it’s smooth. Stir the egg mixture back into the saucepan. Add the sugar, molasses, butter, salt, and spices. Pour into the prepared dish and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove the dish from the oven and pour the remaining 1/2 cup of milk over the top. Don’t stir it; just let it cover the top of the pudding. Bake for 2 more hours, until the pudding is set. Serve warm.

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