Turkey is the main course at Thanksgiving dinner. And there’s good historical reason for that. William Bradford, the leader of that band of separatist Puritans who settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, recorded in his history of the plantation that “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.”
Our focus on feast and family at Thanksgiving generally obscures the staggering hardships that those settlers endured— those few who survived. Bradford gives us our description of it in his history, named simply, Of Plimouth Plantation. Here is an excerpt describing their plight.
Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembred by yt which wente before), they had now no freinds to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure. It is recorded in scripture as a mercie to ye apostle & his shipwraked company, yt the barbarians shewed them no smale kindnes in refreshing them, but these savage barbarians, when they mette with them (as after will appeare) were readier to fill their sids full of arrows then otherwise. And for ye season it was winter, and they that know ye winters of yt cuntrie know them to be sharp & violent, & subjecte to cruell & feirce stormes, deangerous to travill to known places, much more to serch an unknown coast. Besids, what could they see but a hidious & desolate wildernes, full of wild beasts & willd men? and what multituds ther might be of them they knew not. Nether could they, as it were, goe up to ye tope of Pisgah, to vew from this willdernes a more goodly cuntrie to feed their hops; for which way soever they turnd their eys (save upward to ye heavens) they could have litle solace or content in respecte of any outward objects. For sumer being done, all things stand upon them with a wetherbeaten face; and ye whole countrie, full of woods & thickets, represented a wild & savage heiw. If they looked behind them, ther was ye mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a maine barr & goulfe to seperate them from all ye civill parts of ye world.
Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, died while the Mayflower was at anchor in Provincetown Harbor and by the end of the first winter half the colonists had perished.
The painting reproduced below, The First Thanksgiving, is contrary to most of what we know about that occasion. The painter, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, was born in Philadelphia in 1863 and died in 1930. His fame rested on a series of 78 historical painting, entitled The Pageant of a Nation. However, his fame did not last and those works have been rightly criticized as being Romantic idealizations of events — precise in their details but often inaccurate in total. The First Thanksgiving shows Wampanoag Indians with feathered headdress which, in fact, they didn’t wear. The details of the headdress are correct, but it belongs to a far different tribe; the chair on the right is an accurate portrayal of a chair owned by William Bradford, the 17th century clothing is accurate, but probably not worn by the Puritans. Whether a young woman would be serving the heathen native men of the area is doubtful. Certainly the trees would be bare in Plymouth, the weather would be, at best, quite chilly and the Europeans would not look so well fed, nor so healthy. By the way, if you’re familiar with the name Jean-Léon Gérôme you may wonder what the connection is between that better known French painter this American. Jean Ferris’s father was a painter who admired Gérôme and gave that name to his son.