Fall is moving in the right direction, but it feels more like winter. Children in the Plaza are running to catch falling leaves and pretending to smoke cigarettes as steam puffs out from their tiny little mouths. It seems like summer just ended a few minutes ago. It is also the time of year when young school children in the Valley are learning about Pilgrims and Indians.
The Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, set out from Southhampton, England in the Mayflower, arriving in Plymouth in 1620. The journey took over two months, challenging all of the 102 souls who choose to make the pilgrimage to the New World. They landed in what is now Massachusetts and on December 11 signed the Mayflower Compact – the first civil document governing the Plymouth Colony. As the saying goes, “hindsight is 20-20.” It may have been more prudent for the expedition to leave England a few months earlier, as the harsh winter proved deadly for the young colony.
The Pilgrims simply did not have enough time to prepare, nor did they expect such a harsh New England winter. Half of the colonists lost their lives. Such a toll rolls off the pen rather easily 400 years after the tragedy, but the loss of life must have been devastating for the survivors. But he new colonists were a highly religious group, and their prayers were finally answered. It was the indigenous people of the area, the Wampanoags, which helped save those still holding on to life, by teaching them how to survive and providing them with food. The colonists did plant crops in the spring and by summer were harvesting their bounty.
Almost to the day, one full year since the signing of the Mayflower Compact, a three-day feast took place on December 13, 1621. The Pilgrims celebrated with their Wampanoag friends thanking them and God. This festival set the stage for an American tradition, though historians debate as to whether previous gatherings to offer “thanks” may have been the first Thanksgiving. A similar celebration took place in what is now St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 and celebrations in Virginia as early as 1607. Whatever the origins of the first Thanksgiving may be, it was 1621’s three-day festival that may have introduced poultry as the primary course for all Thanksgiving celebrations thereafter.
In the words of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, “our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling…the four in one day killed as much fowl to serve the company almost a week… and by the goodness of God we are far from want.” President George Washington issued a proclamation in 1789, to celebrate its first day of Thanksgiving to God under the new constitution. But it wasn’t until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln made it official, declaring the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving. Congress permanently established the fourth Thursday of each November as a national holiday in 1941.
What about the pie? Its origins have been around since the time of the ancient Egyptians and have evolved over the years to take many forms and functions throughout the kitchens of the world. So while the phrase “as American as apple pie” might be a stretch, Thanksgiving in our home would not be Thanksgiving without a full array to choose from. The origins of pumpkin pie also evolved through time, and I, for one, am glad it did. The Wampanoag roasted long strips of pumpkin over their fires like marshmallows and ate them. The colonists in turn sliced off the pumpkin top removing the seeds, filling the pumpkin with milk, spices and honey, and then baked it in hot ashes. Fall is moving in the right direction, just a little too fast.
This week’s column is adapted from last year’s Thanksgiving archive. George McKale is a practicing archaeologist and Sonoma’s City Historian. He has excavated throughout California ranging from Native American sites thousands of years old to Gold Rush era locations. His passion and specialty in archaeology is the study of human remains.