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The First Thanksgiving Dinner (as depicted in the New York Times).--

For Thanksgiving 2004, I posted an account of the Massachusetts Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving in 1621.

Last Thanksgiving, the New York Times ran a bizarre op-ed by Professor James E. McWilliams of Texas State University at San Marcos on our anachronistic views of the food served at the first Thanksgiving.

McWilliams in the 2005 New York Times:

They Held Their Noses, and Ate

No contemporary American holiday is as deeply steeped in culinary tradition as Thanksgiving. Not only is the day centered on a feast, but it's also a feast with a narrowly proscribed list of foods - usually some combination of turkey, corn, cranberries, squash and pumpkin pie. Decorated with these dishes, the Thanksgiving table has become a secular altar upon which we worship America's pioneering character, a place to show reverence for the rugged Pilgrims who came to Plymouth in peace, sat with the Indians as equals and indulged in the New World's cornucopia with gusto.

But you might call this comfort food for a comfort myth.

The native American food that the Pilgrims supposedly enjoyed would have offended the palate of any self-respecting English colonist — the colonial minister Charles Woodmason called it "exceedingly filthy and most execrable." Our comfort food, in short, was the bane of the settlers' culinary existence.

But the colonial minister Charles Woodmason quoted by McWilliams was not a Pilgrim writing in the 1620s. Woodmason was a famously prejudiced Anglican missionary to backcountry Carolina, describing the habits of Irish and Scots-Irish settlers in his diary during 1766-68, over 140 years after the Pilgrim's Thanksgiving. Here is the sort of food that Woodmason was complaining that the poor Appalachians were eating (and not eating):

"Clabber, butter, fat mushy bacon, cornbread," [Woodmason] wrote, "as for tea and coffee they know it not . . . neither beef nor mutton nor beer, cyder or anything better than water." . . . Woodmason noted that "the people are all from Ireland, and live wholly on butter, milk, clabber and what in England is given to hogs."

So Woodmason's derisive comments, quoted by McWilliams, refer not to the diet of the Pilgrims, but to the very different diet common in Appalachia on the eve of American Revolution. Clabber (a form of sour milk somewhat like cottage cheese or yogurt) was a common food in Northern England, but was treated as only fit for animals in Southern England. I located no evidence that the Plymouth pilgrims ate this staple of the Carolina backcountry diet. While the pilgrims had brought some bacon and butter on the Mayflower, the voyage was so poorly provisioned that it has been speculated that it was quickly gone after arriving. The Pilgrims probably had little or no milk, since they had no cows, though there is a small chance that they had a goat. And Woodmason's complaint that the settlers had no coffee or tea would never have been made by a 1620s pilgrim since they had probably never tasted either one. In 1620, tea had not yet been introduced into England, and England's first coffeehouse was founded in 1650 (there were 3,000 such shops by 1675).

Woodmason also complained that the food in 1767 backcountry Carolina was all boiled, but the Pilgrims favored roasting. And Woodmason was disgusted by the whisky drinking in western Carolina in the 1760s, while the Pilgrims didn't drink whisky.

As for Indian corn, which was a staple of the Pilgrim's diet, the sources I consulted do not support the notion of revulsion to that food either. In the very December 11, 1621 letter that described the 1621 Thanksgiving, Edward Winslow advises the next group of settlers not to bring more rice than they will need for the voyage because of the attractiveness of Indian corn:

Our Indian corn, even the coarsest, makes as pleasant meat as rice; therefore spare that, unless to spend by the way.

McWilliams goes on:

Understanding this paradox requires acknowledging that there's no evidence to support the holiday's early association with food — much less foods native to North America. Thanksgiving celebrations occurred irregularly at best after 1621 (the year of the supposed first Thanksgiving) and colonists observed them as strictly religious events (conceivably by fasting).

It wasn't until the mid-19th century that domestic writers began to play down Thanksgiving's religious emphasis and invest the holiday with familiar culinary values.

If you read the original account of the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving, you can see that McWilliams is wrong: there is "evidence to support the holiday's early association with food," in particular, "foods native to North America."

We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads [here Winslow apparently means alewives], which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Federal Dog:
So this guy's tenured in a history department? Did he even bother to read Winslow? If so, what's his evidence that Winslow misrepresented matters?


Is it common for tenured historians to not deal with original sources?
11.23.2006 12:39pm
James Lindgren (mail):
McWilliams probably never read Winslow.

Winslow himself came to regret his over optimistic tone in the Dec. 11, 1621 letter; it was written during their first season of plenty after a year of starvation, disease, and death. He underestimated how hard each of the next few years would be. Also, in 1624 he noted that, while fish were abundant, they didn't have the right hooks and nets to catch most of them.

Jim Lindgren
11.23.2006 1:06pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Political correctness seems to count for a great deal more than knowledge or scholarship in University history departments today. Within the last few years a history professor at UMAss Boston wrote an oped piece in the Fourth of July edition of the Boston Globe. The point of his screed was that the radical Samuel Adams had a major role in writing the Declaration of Independence and therfore the Fourth should be a celebration of the radical left. This tenured idiot: (1) managed to confuse Sam Adams with his cousin John Adams (who actually did assist Jefferson in the formulation of the Declaration of Independence); (2) failed to realize that SAm Adams was a conservative by contemporary standards and that John Adams actually had a somewhat restraining influence on the document; (3) did not realize that this restraining influence was most evident in the early paragraphs of the Declaration--the non-embarassing part; and (4) did not realize that the part of the document produced by the more "radical" elements of the revolution -- the list of charges against George III -- is now a politically incorrect embarassment (George prevented the stealing of land from Indians,etc.). Just as incredibly, no one on the Globe staff caught the mind-numbing ignorance of the piece.
11.23.2006 2:14pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
The kind of people who rise in editorial departments at big-city newspapers are not the sort who spend any time reading history. Sigh.

There is the 'debate' whether the 'first' Thanksgiving (by the English) was in Massachusetts or Virginia in 1619. Morison trumped both by finding one in Newfoundland in the 1580s.

The business about the 'shad' is a myth, even if taken from a contemporary document. If you bury a fish with your corn seed, the raccoons, foxes etc. will quickly dig up the fish and your seed. No doubt the Pilgrims did something with the fish, if they say they did, but it is not clear what. They could not have inserted a whole fish in each hill of seed. Jack Temple Kirby discussses this in 'Mockingbird Song,' but Southerners like the novelist Julia Peterkin have been ridiculing this story for generations.
11.23.2006 3:03pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
(4) did not realize that the part of the document produced by the more "radical" elements of the revolution -- the list of charges against George III -- is now a politically incorrect embarassment

I wonder if the spirit of George III is not somewhere having a good laugh at:

"He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither..." and

"He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."

Considering that we now have a million-person civilian government, and a major topic is whether to build a wall on the border to keep foreigners from migrating hither.

Or "He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny," considering that several tens of thousands of them "went over the hill" and instead of inflicting death and desolation on Americans, became their ancestors.
11.23.2006 4:18pm
TurkeyMan (mail):
Roger Alford at OJ posted a great piece on Thanksgiving, written by historian Diana Karter Appelbaum:

http://www.opiniojuris.org/posts/1164252131.shtml
11.23.2006 4:23pm
Federal Dog:
AppSocRes--


I am soooo having a heart attack. I, for one, want to see faculty rigorously tested to assure competence in the field before they are entrusted with instruction. By tested, I mean bar/med board style -- by some organization with no interest in the outcome of the testing (not the departments that actually gave these clowns doctorates in the first place).


When I see the damage done to the public by such idiots, I get really angry. Much political hysteria is the direct result of people having no clue whatsoever about our history and how our government is structured. In my worst moments, I suspect the wholesale destruction is all by express design -- the more ignorant people are, the easier it is to manipulate them politically.
11.23.2006 4:53pm
Tracy W (mail):
To be sure, the English frequently hunted for their meals. But hunting was preferably a sport. When the English farmer chased game to feed his family, he did so with pangs of shame. To resort to the hunt was, after all, indicative of agricultural failure, poor planning and laziness.

You know, I've never heard of such an attitude and I've read a fair bit of English history. And I'm not sure where he would get evidence of such beliefs about the England where the Pilgrims came from. I understand most of the written records we have back then come from the relatively well-off, who could afford to just buy their food. Apparently there are very very little written records by ordinary English people from the 16th and 17th centuries - the sorts of people who may have run out of money and had to hunt. None of the few letters or diaries by ordinary people I have read (as secondary sources) mention a distaste for hunting for food - or mentioned it at all.

Furthermore, I have read a number of accounts of Australian and New Zealand settlers and none of them seem to have had a qualm about hunting for food. While this is some 150 years after the Pilgrims, it does make me wonder about this claim.
11.23.2006 10:06pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

So this guy's tenured in a history department? Did he even bother to read Winslow? If so, what's his evidence that Winslow misrepresented matters?


Is it common for tenured historians to not deal with original sources?
While not necessarily the norm, it is by no means rare for tenured historians to get so in love with their 21st century ideas that they simply ignore any and all primary sources that fail to conform to their beliefs. The most extreme example was the Bellesiles scandal (which involved not simply ignoring primary sources, but actively falsifying them), but McWilliams's beliefs about hunting as a barbarous act with which the early colonists would never have bothered was very popular among tenured historians several years ago. When I started pointing out that this was demonstrably false, some of the enthusiasm subsided.

Here's the core problem: when you have accepted the idea that it is impossible to determine what really happened from historical documents because both the writer and the reader of a document are hopelessly blinded by their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, then it becomes very easy to persuade yourself that there is no objective truth contained within those documents. In some ideal world, an academic convinced of this would just start writing fiction or openly political screeds, and quite bothering with history. Why bother trying to find something that you don't believe exists?

Deconstructionism has created a cynical belief among some historians that because they do not believe that there is an ascertainable, objective truth to history, that therefore, it can be whatever they want it to be. If we get to make it up as we go along, we might as may create a useable past--one that suits current political needs.

If you want quite a bit more detail that blows McWilliams' fantasies back into the Deconstructionist Zone, my upcoming book Armed America: How and Why Guns Became As American As Apple Pie will be arriving at your local bookstore, amazon.com, and barnesandnobles.com, in mid-January.

It would be very nice if there were opportunities for me to promote the book--and if you know of such opportunities, please contact me.
11.23.2006 10:46pm
Mark Buehner (mail):

No doubt the Pilgrims did something with the fish, if they say they did, but it is not clear what. They could not have inserted a whole fish in each hill of seed.


The way fish are converted to fertalizer today is by roasting them and then pressing out the liquids. Could be cooked fish that were planted.
11.23.2006 11:38pm
Milhouse (www):
Apparently there are very very little written records by ordinary English people from the 16th and 17th centuries - the sorts of people who may have run out of money and had to hunt.

People who ran out of money and had to hunt didn't write about it, not out of shame that they'd been "driven" to such measures, but because it would be admitting to a crime. Game belonged to the landowners, or to the Crown, and hunting by anyone else was poaching, which could get a person into serious trouble. So while many people did poach game, they didn't talk about it much, and they certainly didn't leave written confessions lying about.

When Englishmen of any class came to countries where there was unowned game to be hunted, they felt no shame at doing so.
11.24.2006 12:00am
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
The best one-volume history of Colonial America is David Hackett Fishers Albions Seed. It nicely separates the four waves of immigration from Great Britain to America: East Anglia to New England; Southwest England to VA; Midland Quakers to the Mid-Atlantic; Scots-English Borderers to Appalachia - and the different cultures and practices of each.
11.24.2006 12:11am
James Lindgren (mail):
Harry Eager:

It would appear that the sources you point to on planting fish are wrong. Do you really think that Winslow was lying?

As to planting fish, I believe that they used alewives, which are very tiny. And in Good Newes, Winslow explains that men had to guard the fields against animals each night for two weeks until the fish rotted:


The chiefest grain is the Indian Maize, or Guinea-Wheat; the seed-time beginneth in midst of April, and continueth good till the midst of May. Our harvest beginneth with September. This come increaseth in great measure, but is inferior in quantity to the same in Virginia, the reason I conceive, is because Virginia is far hotter then it is with us, it requiring great heat to ripen; but whereas it is objected against New England, that Corn will not there grow, except the ground be manured with fish? I answer, That where men set with fish (as with us) it is more easy so to do then to clear ground and set without some five or six years, and so begin anew, as in Virginia and else-where. Not but that in some places, where they cannot be taken with ease in such abundance, the Indians set four years together without, and have as good Corn or better then we have that set with them, though indeed I think if we had Cattle to till the ground, it would be more profitable and better agreeable to the soil, to sow Wheat, Rye, Barley, Peas, and Oats, then to set Mays, which our Indians call ewachim: for we have had experience that they like and thrive well; and the other will not be procured without good labor and diligence, especially at seed-time, when it must also be watched by night to keep the Wolves from the fish, till it be rotten, which will be in fourteen days; yet men agreeing together, and taking their turns it is not much.
11.24.2006 12:12am
Hattio (mail):
And to back up Milhouse's point, its pretty obvious that the common folk did hunt (whether ashamed by the need to or not) because there are a wealth of folk stories and songs about poor folks out for a meal getting hung for hunting well. I would assume there are also court records. Come to think of it, the tone of most of those folk songs doesn't seem to imply any shame whatsoever in needing to hunt.
11.24.2006 1:14am
Jon Ihle (mail) (www):
Clayton,
Actually, what you and Jim have performed re: these contemporary myths about Thanksgiving is deconstruction. That is, you both have exposed the probability that McWilliams, et al are advancing a certain political ideology in their erroneous/falsified discourse.

But when you say deconstruction discounts the possibility of an ascertainable, objective truth about history, you are right only insofar as deconstruction regards all conclusions (especially those drawn from narrative sources) as provisional. In other words, history (all stories for that matter) is open to revision in light of other evidence or interpretations. Deconstruction does not posit that there is no reality or lived experience, only that reality and lived experience (especially those of others) are available to us only in the form of fallible narratives we tell ourselves and others.

Naturally, then, those who take a deconstructive approach to history are going to be drawn to iconic, narratively overdetermined events like Thanksgiving. Still, good deconstructive scholarship, I'm sure you'll agree, should nonetheless rest on sound evidence and not figures of straw.
11.24.2006 5:50am
oldejoe (mail) (www):
I was raised in Newfoundland an island with a distinct lack of pests ...no raccoons, shunks, wolves, etc., though their are foxes, mink, etc... so this comment may not be exactly on point. However, when I was a mere lad, some people still fertilized their vegtable gardens with caplin, a small fish that rolls on to the beaches in the millions to spawn. The caplin were added to the fields prior to the planting, if i recall correctly, and ploughed into the soil to rot. For centuries on this island known as The Rock, it was difficult to grow anything without fertilizing the soil and caplin (with no market value) was the only option. I think I'll call my father to get more details.
11.24.2006 6:47am
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):
You mean the New York Times published something ill-informed and misleading? The Times?

Who'd'a thunk it?
11.24.2006 9:21am
PersonFromPorlock:
Jon Ihle, what you describe as deconstruction used to be called simply "critical analysis." The fact that deconstructionists use a different term, and use it to describe a process which apparently results in only Leftist conclusions, argues that Clayton Cramer's definition has considerable real-world merit.
11.24.2006 9:47am
ELCore (mail) (www):
Not only is the day centered on a feast, but it's also a feast with a narrowly proscribed list of foods. On top of all else, he doesn't know the difference between "proscribe" and "prescribe", which is the word he really needed to use there. What's worse, neither did the editor(s), apparently.
11.24.2006 9:52am
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
ELCore - But "proscribed" sounds better, because you can work in the sly suggestion that we are following in the steps of religious bigots, in our own customs, even today. This fits nicely with the secularist fear that the nation is rapidly descending into "theocracy" - another word used more for its connotations than its actual meaning these days.

Honestly ELCore, how could you be so pedantic as to insist on actual meaning when a whole world of connotation is available to you?
11.24.2006 10:36am
James Lindgren (mail):
Jon Ihle:

Unlike many, I did not view Bellesiles as representing postmodern thinking or deconstruction. He was a historian who professed to use traditional sources and methods, and he was not particularly familiar with postmodernism. He did, however, view the prevailing view of guns in early America as an "invented tradition." Clayton may be in part right: the currency of postmodern ideas probably made it easier for Bellesiles (for a while) to avoid responsibility for obviously misread texts.

I don't view what either Clayton or I did with McWilliams' text as "deconstruction." I thought of my argument as "fisking."

I don't think that your account of deconstruction fully captures its radical indeterminacy and (usual) rejection of the notion of objective truth (not just the difficulty of finding it).
11.24.2006 11:51am
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Clayton may be in part right: the currency of postmodern ideas probably made it easier for Bellesiles (for a while) to avoid responsibility for obviously misread texts.
It is not that what Bellesiles did is properly deconstructionism. As I pointed out above, the widespread belief in deconstructionism created a cynical view that there was no objective reality out there anyway, so it didn't matter what lies you had to tell to create a past that suited your current political needs.

Milhouse writes:


People who ran out of money and had to hunt didn't write about it, not out of shame that they'd been "driven" to such measures, but because it would be admitting to a crime. Game belonged to the landowners, or to the Crown, and hunting by anyone else was poaching, which could get a person into serious trouble. So while many people did poach game, they didn't talk about it much, and they certainly didn't leave written confessions lying about.

When Englishmen of any class came to countries where there was unowned game to be hunted, they felt no shame at doing so.
One of the defining differences between England the colonies was the near absence of hunting regulation of any sort here. There are some hunting regulations in the 17th century in a few colonies, but they are by far the exception, not the rule--and as with some of the English hunting rules, apparently intended more to prevent the poor from surviving without having to be servants to those of higher rank.

In a number of colonies, taxes had to be paid in a mixture of grain and pests. I was surprised to see crows' heads and rabbit pelts frequently listed among the items that you had to provide as part of your taxes.

By the early 18th century, more and more colonies are establishing hunting seasons, limiting the taking of deer to the males only, and prohibiting particularly destructive practices, such as fire-hunting, in which hunters would start large fires in the forest in a circle several miles across, with only one exit--and then kill the terrified animals as they attempted to make that one exit. (Before anyone starts ranting about the Noble Red Man living as one with Mother Earth--the colonists learned this highly efficient but environmentally destructive method from the Indians.)

Not surprisingly, my forthcoming book documents both the development of hunting regulation in Colonial America, and provides a wealth of evidence from eyewitness accounts and archaeological digs that strongly suggests that, contra Bellesiles's claims and those of others, hunting seems to have been the norm in Colonial America. Even in the early Republic period, travelers frequently comment about how widespread hunting was, to the point that in Kentucky the ease of getting game was retarding the development of agriculture.
11.24.2006 10:03pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

The fact that deconstructionists use a different term, and use it to describe a process which apparently results in only Leftist conclusions, argues that Clayton Cramer's definition has considerable real-world merit.
Ah, but that's the wonderful thing about the power of deconstructionism--by removing the notion of absolute truth (even as an unreachable goal) from the table, a scholar may achieve whatever ends seem most appropriate to the political conditions of the time.

Hence, the father of deconstructionism during the Nazi occupation of Belgium wrote many newspaper articles about the value of a "Jew-free Europe". I understand when this little embarassment showed up, De Man's followers pointed out that De Man always said that you could never been completely sure what someone really meant. No problem!

We can argue (and should argue) about how broad the list is of things that are right and wrong should be. We should not be surprised that criminals (whether in the private or public sector) sometimes try to argue that right and wrong, truth and falsity, good and evil are questionable concepts. When these ideas became intellectually fashionable--that's where the collapse of academia started.
11.24.2006 10:55pm
James Lindgren (mail):
Clayton wrote:


In a number of colonies, taxes had to be paid in a mixture of grain and pests. I was surprised to see crows' heads and rabbit pelts frequently listed among the items that you had to provide as part of your taxes.

Sounds like new and neat stuff. Randy Roth wrote about pests in his WM &Mary Q. comment on AA, but I wasn't aware of what you mentioned.

I'm looking forward to your book.

Jim Lindgren
11.26.2006 12:58am