First Thanksgiving Feast

November 11, 2021

What Did They Eat?

First Thanksgiving Feast

Pigeons potentially served alongside turkey … venison instead of ham … maybe a side of eel … but definitely …
"… no, the pastry isn't there. That is a blank in the table, for an English eye … So what are they putting on instead? I think meat, meat and more meat."

Kathleen Wall, a culinarian at the Plimoth Patuxet — a “living history museum” in Massachusetts where the Pilgrims accidentally landed in 1620 — explains that they were lacking butter and flour to make pie crust. Their first Thanksgiving in 1621 celebrated surviving their first year in a new land.


  • Surviving letters from the time period describe hunts for “wildfowl” — likely wild turkey, geese, duck, & possibly passenger pigeons (which have been extinct for over a century).
  • Venison (aka DEER) meat was contributed by local Native Americans, the Wampanoag, who helped teach the pilgrims how to hunt, fish & harvest in the area of modern-day Cape Cod.


LIKELY during Thanksgiving 1621:

  • Wild turkey
  • Corn (dried), beans & carrots
  • Pumpkins (squash)
  • Mussels, eel or shellfish


  • Potatoes (not in North America)
  • Cranberry sauce (not talked about for another 50 years — plus, sugar was scarce)

NAME TO KNOW: Sarah Josepha Hale

  • Original poet of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” & editor of woman’s magazine “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” in which she wrote about American issues & customs.
  • Wrote editorials & petitions for more than two decades, encouraging politicians to make Thanksgiving a national (instead of regional) holiday.

Hale’s work paid off. A letter to Pres. Lincoln in Sept. 1863 is thought to have inspired his proclamation to make Thanksgiving a national holiday on November’s last Thursday. He did this during the Civil War in 1863 (the same year he delivered the Gettysburg Address) as a way to unify the country around a common history. Read Hale’s letter on our source page!

Since 1941, after Pres. Roosevelt signed a resolution passed by Congress, Thanksgiving has occurred on the fourth Thursday in November.

Proclamation of Thanksgiving
"I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens." — President Abraham Lincoln

by Jenna Lee,