Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving at Plimoth Plantation

I grew up in the time when school taught us that Pilgrims and friendly Indians had the first Thanksgiving dinner together." I loved the idea of it - very different cultures becoming friends and sharing a common celebration meal. I have a vague memory of visiting the Mayflower II and Plymouth Rock with my parents when I was about 9 or 10.

Before we go any further, I'll put any misgivings to rest. Yes, I am aware of the following:
  • "The Pilgrims" didn't call themselves Pilgrims. They called themselves English.
  • "The Indians" were not "Indians." They were Wampanoag, which is an English mispronunciation of "Wapana'ac."
  • To the Puritan settlers, a day of "Thanksgiving" was spent in fasting and prayer. A festival celebrating a good harvest was a harvest celebration, sometimes called a "Harvest Home."
  • The English were celebrating their harvest for more than a week when the guns from their military exercises got the attention of the Wapana'ac. A war party, led by Massassoit (his title, not his name), went to find out what the fuss was all about. When they arrived at the stockade, they were invited to stay for more feasting. The Massassoit dispatched some of his men to provide meat, and they returned with five deer. The feast that included the Wapana'ac lasted another three days. About 90 Wapana'ac and 52 English attended.

When we moved back to Rhode Island, I learned that Plimoth Plantation has Thanksgiving dinners for the public, and added it to my 3rd 101 Things in 1001 Days. This year we got to go.

Since tickets to "America's Thanksgiving Dinner" include all the other Plimoth attractions, we started in the morning with the Mayflower II.
Mayflower II
The Mayflower boasts both modern-day crew and roleplayers. The roleplayers are in 1620-something, and are playing specific people of the ship. One that we saw played Mr Hawk (I think he said), who spoke of what life was like on the ship that had sailed only last year. 100-odd people crammed into a hold about the size of my tiny apartment, along with some pigs, chicken and other small farm animals.

Only about a block away from the ship is what's left of Plymouth Rock.

Plymouth rock

Nobody knows for sure if this is actually where the English landed, as there are no contemporaneous reports or diaries mentioning a rock. The first mention of a rock, according to Wikipedia, is of a large boundary rock that was described in 1715. The rock has seen a lot of action over the years, being broken in half, moved to a few locations around town, then cemented back together at the shoreline. The 1620 was carved in 1880. Today, the rock (significantly reduced in size by souvenir hunters) is housed in a Roman columned portico, behind grates to protect it from more human damage. The portico was created by the firm of McKim, Mead and White in 1920 to honor the 300th anniversary of the landing. McKim, Mead and White also designed the Rhode Island State House, the East and West wings of the White House, Madison Square Garden and hundreds of other notable buildings.

Craig Simpson Plymouth Rock Portico - Plymouth MA
The rock sits on the shoreline, so during high tide, the water reaches it. When we were there it was low tide, and it looked more like this (but without the leaves on the trees).

It was stupid-cold, so we didn't stay very long, but it was still very interesting to see. From Pilgrim Memorial Park, we went to Plimoth Plantation, just a couple of miles down the road.

Inside Plimoth Plantation there are four areas to visit. The first is the Visitors Center, with a 14 minute introductory video to the Plantation, a walk-through exhibit about the myths, truths and unknowns of the origin of Thanksgiving, the gift shop and dining areas.

Next is the Wampanoag homesite. The people there are Wampanoags, recreating life at the time. They're not roleplayers, and converse in English about life then and now for First Nations people.

Wapana'ac woman

Wapana'ac winter house
This is a winter home that would have been built further inland. The inside is huge and would sleep 15.

Further along the path is the English village. Here the roleplayers live in 1627. They play specific people of the village at that time, speaking and behaving in character. It can make for some less than politically correct conversations, but is fascinating and educational nonetheless.

English Village


The cold weather meant most of the colonists were indoors beside the fires, and the tiny homes were crowded with chilly tourists.

The last stop on the path was the Craft Center. Here artisans create some of the clothing, pottery and furniture for the English village, and some Native decorative wear for the Wampanoag home site.

At last it was time for dinner. We had the 6pm seating.

Dining room for America's Thanksgiving dinner

Dinner was excellent. It started with appetizers of fruit, cheese and bread, then a prayer by Mr and Mrs Warren of Plimoth.

mr Warren offers a prayer
Puritans commonly prayed facing upward with hands raised.
The main course was turkey (pre-carved) with Harvard beets, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, creamed onions, steamed turnips and mashed butternut squash.

Thanksgiving turkey
the turkey
As we ate, we noticed two men and a woman in Victorian dress who seemed confusingly out of place. At first we thought they were there to advertise the upcoming performance of A Christmas Carol. Instead, it turned out they were Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and their son Robert. When they met and chatted with the Wapana'ac, it was a mind-bending sight.

the Lincolns and the Wapana'ac

The Lincolns were there - in 1863 - to visit their son Robert at Harvard, and to stop by Plimoth on the occasion of the 1st - and 150th Thanksgiving since President Lincoln's proclamation making it an annual event on the last Thursday in November (which has since been amended to be the fourth Thursday).

Mr. Lincoln read his proclamation and offered a toast to the Union. Then followed more conversation and dessert: apple pie, pumpkin pie or Indian pudding - a warm mollasses-y cornmeal mush.

It was a full day, and we went home stuffed and weary, but it was an unforgettable experience and well worth the cold and sore feet. I think everyone with an interest in American history should have this experience at least once. Bear and I are both glad we did.


  1. What a terrific post! Thank you, thank you. We have sure gotten away from fasting, haven't we? And that rock is soooo cool. You were almost reading my mind as I wrote that. I was all, "How did they get the numbers so ROUND in the 1600s?" They didn't. What a cool post.

  2. Thanks Gal! I'm glad you enjoyed it. We had a good time there.

  3. Wow--what a fantastic time! I might have to add this to my bucket list.