The First Thanksgiving

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I’m headed out today for a much-needed vacation, so I’ll be blogging quite a bit less this week. However, this morning I thought I would take a break from all of the medical and science stuff and dive into the first Thanksgiving. Let’s dig in.

What Is Thanksgiving?

You know me, I’m that 12-year-old kid who knew the orbital escape velocity and thrust of the Saturn V rocket (24,900 miles per hour and 7.5 million pounds). The first time I was turned loose in a university library to research my science fair project, I was in heaven. The idea that all of that knowledge was just a short walk into the massive stacks of books was amazing. Now all of that knowledge is just a few clicks away. So let’s learn about the actual first Thanksgiving.

The stuff we learned in school, of course, isn’t so accurate. The Pilgrims were religious extremists, even for their day. The trip to Plymouth rock left far too late for the safe Atlantic crossing weather window. The ship they were supposed to be on was the Speedwell, but it leaked so badly that they all piled onto the Mayflower. This was a commercial voyage sponsored by a business venture that required the Pilgrims to send rare things back (like beaver pelts) in exchange for funding. So the pilgrims began in hock to the commercial venture and since they never sent much back, the company went bankrupt. After bad weather, the trade winds were off, so they plodded across the ocean at a leisurely 2 knots rather than the usual 4-5. Meaning the trip took twice as long as usual.

They were headed for Virginia, but bad navigation and the strange trade winds that year lead them to Massachusetts. What they did do was to draw up the first consensual government agreement outside of a monarchy called the Mayflower compact. They essentially agreed to govern themselves democratically. However, as a kid, I assumed they were the first settlers here in America. Not by a long shot. There were colonies all up and down the east coast. They did land in a sparsely colonized area, but the making friends with the local indigenous people thing is only half true. They fought with the locals and finally had a break when one of the colonists saved the life of the chief of the local tribe. They then formed an alliance with that tribe against another local tribe that wanted to wipe out the pilgrims.

Why do we know about these colonists and not the many others? Because the leader William Bradford wrote a journal about the journey and the first years of the colony. That journal and another text were kept instead of being lost to history.

The Indians did help the pilgrims figure out how they should plant corn seeds (with an anchovy for fertilizer). The entry about the first thanksgiving from Mourt’s Relation was this (in modern spelling):

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits 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 amongst 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.”

Nothing about turkeys. They likely ate waterfowl (ducks/geese), deer, cod, and bass, native corn (not on the cob but as cornbread and porridge), and nuts.

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I Love Thanksgiving

Knowing about the real first Thanksgiving is almost a letdown of sorts, right? I love the holiday and mythology we’ve created from a simple harvest feast. If nothing else, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the modern run-up to Christmas. And given that I listen to Christmas tunes nonstop from Thanksgiving through the new year, you can guess how special Christmas was at my house growing up in a middle-class family of seven kids. It’s a VERY big deal in my home as well. Since I’m not that personally religious, it’s not the midnight mass that gets me about the holiday season, but the fact that for about a month out of 12, we all slow down a bit and focus on giving.

The upshot? Thus begins my vacation! While I’ll blog some here and there, I’ll be doing a bit less this week. However, you can bet that on Thanksgiving day I will be giving thanks for all that I have!

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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