We all learned about the first Thanksgiving feast in elementary school. Kindergarten children make feathered headdresses and Pilgrim hats out of construction paper. We eat too much turkey and green bean casserole and pumpkin pie to celebrate the survival of our forefathers in 1621.
But what about our foremothers? When I wrote a novelette about the Pilgrims and Indians entitled “Sweet Savage Charity,” being a history addict, I researched my subject beyond what we learned in school. I was surprised to find that only four adult women survived that first winter. Four adult women to care for 50 men and twenty children. I shudder to think.
The Pilgrims lived as a community those first years. The men hunted and fished and tended the fields. Food stores went into the communal pot. The women cooked, cleaned, did laundry and mending for the entire community. No doubt the children helped, but some of them were infants and toddlers and needed a lot of care. Probably the older girls watched the younger ones while the older boys went off with the men.
The women also gathered berries, dug for clams and mussels and fetched the water and firewood. When the men returned with game, it was the women that cleaned and prepared the meat. Mending was a constant chore as they had no spinning wheels or looms to make cloth.
There was no such thing as having a “headache” after a long and arduous day. The men were allowed to beat their wives for refusing their conjugal rights. As proof, just look at Elizabeth Warren who arrived in 1623. She died at age 93 with 75 great-grandchildren. Her husband died 45 years earlier and she never remarried. I expect she felt she had more than done her duty.
Mary Chilton, by tradition the first person to set foot on Plymouth Rock, gave birth to ten children. She was only 16 when she arrived and soon to be an orphan. She didn’t marry until 1627. I don’t blame her for taking her time.
The next ship to arrive some weeks after the feast, brought 35 men; no women. More cooking and cleaning for our foremothers.
Women finally started arriving in 1623 on the Ann and the James. Patience Brewster came on the Ann in 1623, but only survived long enough to give birth to three children. She was married to Thomas Prence who later became governor. However, he married three more times. Obviously he needed someone to cook and clean and tend the children.
Back to the Autumn of 1621 on that historic day when 90 Indians arrived with five deer. Can you imagine how these four women felt when all those men showed up for dinner? Talk about unexpected company!
“Honey, I brought a few of the guys home for the weekend,” said the Pilgrim father happily.
The Pilgrim mother gritted her teeth as five eviscerated deer were dumped at her feet.
“How nice,” she grated. “May I see you in the kitchen, Dear?”
Massasoit mumbles to Squanto out of the side of his mouth. “I told him he should have called ahead.”
Sure, they brought their own meat, but who had to prepare and cook it? The four ladies of Plymouth Colony.
Turkeys and other birds had to be plucked, fish had to be cleaned, pumpkins and corn roasted, berries stewed, peas, beans and squash prepared, and beer brewed. Yes, they had a type of beer made from wild strawberries and sassafras which the women were responsible for. The founding mothers cooked for 140 people for three straight days.
What were the men doing while the women cooked? Supposedly praying. They weren’t allowed sports and games. In fact, on Christmas Day of that year, Governor Bradford confiscated implements for pitching the bar and playing stool ball (early forms of cricket and baseball) because some of the men refused to work on Christmas.
The Indians, on the other hand, indulged in Lacrosse, swimming, wrestling and archery among other games. Do you think they sat around and watched the Puritans pray for three days? Not a chance. They would have kept themselves amused with their games and maybe even some dancing. I also don’t think, given Governor Bradford’s actions at Christmas, that all of the settlers kept their eyes on their Bibles or their minds on prayer.
Keep in mind that less than half of the settlers were Puritans or Separatists. The rest of the company were non-Separatists who just wanted to make a new life in a new country. Some of them were sent by those who had put up the money and supplies for this venture to keep an eye on their investment.
So what was really going on that first Thanksgiving? The men were drinking beer and most likely watching the Indians at their sports. Some of them might have even joined in. The women were cooking and washing the dishes and keeping an eye on the children. Are these not traditions that we keep alive to this very day?
Squanto, the Indian we all know as the one who spoke English, stayed with the Pilgrims for the Winter of 1621/22. It was Squanto who taught them how to survive in the harsh climate. But I think it’s a safe bet that in all that time he never even shucked an ear of corn.
So, here’s to our foremothers, those tough, dedicated women who bore hardships and privations right alongside their men (and a lot of men not even theirs). Let’s not forget that without them, there would not be four million descendants of the Pilgrims alive today.
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