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Reflecting on the 1st Thanksgiving

By now you are finishing up the delicious leftovers from the Thanksgiving feast, and possibly heading out to the deer camps that dot the landscape of Pennsylvania. Some reflections on the first Thanksgiving might be appropriate as we consider the bounty that we have just enjoyed.

Our national holiday really stems from the feast held in the autumn of 1621 by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians to celebrate the colony’s first successful corn harvest. According to what traditionally is known as “The First Thanksgiving,” that feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained waterfowl, venison, fish, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, squash and possibly a wild turkey. It was certainly local fare at its finest.

Although prayers and thanks were probably offered at the 1621 harvest gathering, the first recorded religious Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth happened two years later in 1623. On this occasion, the colonists gave thanks to God for rain after a two-month drought. This is certainly something that farmers and gardeners can appreciate.

Think of this when you look back on what the Pilgrims had to endure. They left Plymouth, England, in September 1620 (not the best time to be putting out to sea), on a small ship called the Mayflower (90 feet long). The ship carried 102 passengers — an assortment of religious separatists seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith, and other individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World. It is hard for us to imagine what a treacherous and uncomfortable crossing it must have been in that tiny wooden ship. If you want to get a taste for what they endured, get the old 1952 movie starring Spencer Tracy, “Plymouth Adventure.” As I like to say, they were certainly the days of wooden ships and iron men and women. The voyage lasted 66 days (today a modern ocean liner can cross the ocean in six days), when they finally dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod.

One month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims — as they are now commonly known — began the work of establishing a village at Plymouth. Throughout that first brutal winter, most of the colonists remained on board the ship where they suffered from exposure, scurvy and outbreaks of contagious disease.

Only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew lived to see their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers moved ashore, where they received an astonishing visit from an Abenaki Indian, who greeted them in English. Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe who had been kidnapped by an English sea captain and sold into slavery before escaping to London and returning to his homeland on an exploratory expedition. Squanto taught the Pilgrims, weakened by malnutrition and illness, how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers and avoid poisonous plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the sole examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.

It is hard to imagine how difficult it was to begin to settle what is known today as the United States of America and how thankful the early settlers were for the little things of life and the harvest from their gardens and the land, which meant the difference between living and dying. Ponder that while you finish the remains of your Thanksgiving feast that was supplied in large part by the hardworking and dedicated farmers who supply your food each day. Give thanks each day that we have farmers and growers who have the spirit of the early Pilgrims and settlers and permit us to pursue other occupations and pastimes.

Bill Lamont is professor emeritus of vegetable crops in the department of plant science at Penn State and can be reached by e-mail at wlamont@psu.edu.