The first Thanksgiving, in American lore, is usually identified as a harvest feast that took place in the fall of 1621 in Massachusetts. But it wasn’t until two centuries later, when President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving that it started to become the holiday we know today. Congress officially made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1870.
With a 200+ year gap, it’s no wonder many of the foods we associate with a modern Thanksgiving likely weren’t present at that 1621 feast. But have you ever wondered which plant foods were there, and which are native to New England?
Native foods, like cranberries, did have their place in the first Thanksgiving meal, but by 1621 many non-native plants were already in the New England area and were likely also part of the harvest spread.
Indigenous people in the area had cultivated plants domesticated elsewhere in the Americas, like corn and pumpkins, for centuries, while English settlers brought their own favorite crops, like carrots and wheat, with them.
Still, some modern Thanksgiving favorites like sweet potatoes were only brought to the US later, while others like pecans were important indigenous foods in other parts of the U.S., including Missouri, but weren’t present in New England at the first Thanksgiving.
Which plant-foods were native to the area at the first Thanksgiving?
Native plants and food stuffs had been traded and cultivated for years by indigenous people, including the Wampanoag, who taught the pilgrims agricultural practices suited to their new climate and helped them survive. About 4,000-5,000 Wampanoag live in New England today.
Only a handful of foods we eat on Thanksgiving today are actually native to the New England area that hosted the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
Vaccinium macrocarpon, commonly called American cranberry, is native to bogs, swamps, and wet shorelines in parts of northern and eastern North America. Native Americans have long harvested wild cranberries and used them for food, drink and a variety of remedies.
Without sugar, however, it’s unlikely cranberry sauce was consumed at the first Thanksgiving. And of course, canned cranberry sauce didn’t hit the shelves until 1912.
The American chestnut, Castanea dentata, is native to the Eastern United States and was formerly a core component to Eastern hardwood forests. Today, the trees are nearly extinct in the wild due to chestnut blight.
Due to their prevalence in the 17th century, it is likely chestnuts were on the first Thanksgiving plates.
Another native American nut, walnuts were abundant in Massachusetts at the time of the first Thanksgiving. The black walnut, Juglans nigra, is native throughout the Eastern U.S., including Missouri. Indigenous peoples of the time mixed the crushed black walnuts into breads and puddings and used parts of the plant to treat ailments including toothaches and snake bites and even as an anti-inflammatory.
Common onions, Allium cepa, are native to Asia. They belong to the genus Allium, which has hundreds of edible species and occurs throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Another allium species with much smaller bulbs, Allium canadense, is native to eastern North America and has a history of use by Native Americans.
What non-native plants were already here by the first Thanksgiving?
While not native to the New England area, many Thanksgiving staples were being cultivated in the East by 1621, either by indigenous peoples or English settlers.
Perhaps the most iconic plant in Thanksgiving imagery, corn, Zea mays, is actually native to Mexico. Archeologists have found maize cobs in Mexico that date back to 5,000 BC. By 3,000 BC it was an important food crop in Mesoamerica.
Corn comes in hundreds of varieties and every color of the rainbow. The Wampanoag showed English settlers how to grow multi-colored flint corn, also called “Indian corn,” and it became a culinary staple for them.
Amber waves of grain may be part of America the Beautiful now, but wheat is actually native to the Middle East. Bread wheat or common wheat, Triticum aestivum, was first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, which includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, more than 10,000 years ago, and soon spread to the other areas of the world. Wheat has been grown in England for at least 5,000 years.
The pilgrims brought wheat with them to North America but any bread at the first Thanksgiving was more likely made from maize or barley. Stuffing was likely made from native nuts, such as chestnuts and walnuts.
Carrots, Daucus carota var. sativus, were first cultivated in Afghanistan from wild carrots, also known as “Queen Anne’s lace,” a weedy plant native to Europe and Asia. Carrots soon became popular in Europe, but the orange variety we know didn’t come onto the scene for many years.
The pilgrims brought orange carrot seeds with them when they came to the U.S. and it is commonly believed this root vegetable was present at the first Thanksgiving.
What we think of as green beans didn’t exist in 1621. The species, Phaseolus vulgaris is a member of the pea family and is native to Central and South America. By 1621, Phaseolus vulgaris was being grown in Massachusetts and likely included varieties grown for edible pods. Beans are among the “three sisters,” which also include squash and maize, cultivated by indigenous people in North America for thousands of years.
While consumed for centuries, the green beans had a stringy texture and wouldn’t have been great in a casserole until Calvin Keeney developed snap beans in 1889.
Pumpkins and acorn squash
Pumpkins come from an enormously diverse plant family, Cucurbitaceae, which contains more than 100 genera and over 700 species native to Central and South America.
If we’re talking pie, “sugar pumpkins
,” are a variety of Cucurbita pepo, a large and diverse species that was likely first domesticated in Mexico. At the time of the first Thanksgiving, some forms of this species were being grown in New England, and were likely part of the celebration – though probably not in pie form.
Acorn squash, eaten by some as a Thanksgiving side, are also Cucurbita pepo, were also in New England by 1621.
Turnips, Brassica rapa, have an ancient lineage and the European-style turnip we’re familiar with today was grown in France as early as 100 AD. Settlers brought these plants with them from England.
Which other modern Thanksgiving foods are native to North America?
While they didn’t grow as far north as Massachusetts in 1621, some Thanksgiving foods we enjoy today have native ranges in southern North America.
Pecans are a Missouri native, but their natural range falls south of Massachusetts. Hardy pecans, or Carya illinoinensis, are the largest of hickory trees. Their native range is from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio south to Alabama and Mexico, with trees primarily found in the Mississippi River valley and the valleys of its principal tributaries
They might have the same name, but sweet potatoes and potatoes are not botanically related. The sweet potato, Ipomoea batatas, is native to tropical America, including Mexico, and has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years.
The word potato was first adopted into English to refer to sweet potatoes — from the Taino, an indigenous group from the Carribean, word “batatas.” Sweet potatoes arrived in Europe several decades before potatoes, and potatoes were once called “bastard potatoes” to distinguish them from sweet potatoes. Over time, potatoes proved to be a more common crop than sweet potatoes, and “bastard” was dropped from one and “sweet” was added to the other.
Native Americans grew sweet potatoes in the United States starting in the 18th century and the plants were introduced to New England in 1764.
Along with pumpkins, winter squash, like the popular butternut squash, are from the family Cucurbitaceae.
Cucurbita moschata was first domesticated in Central and South America. It produces a variety of fruits that vary considerably in size and shape. Flowers, leaves, and seeds of this species are also edible. However, it isn’t likely that these squash varieties were present in New England at 1621.
What isn’t native?
Some of the biggest stars of the modern American Thanksgiving feast are not native to North America, and weren’t yet present in Massachusetts in 1621.
While it may be the most popular Thanksgiving side dish, mashed potatoes certainly weren’t at Plymouth in 1621. The potato, or Solanum tuberosum, is native to South America, specifically the Andes Mountains. The Spanish brought them to Europe in the late 16th century but they were slow to take off in popularity. Today, the potato is one of the most important food crops in the world.
In America now, the term “sweet potato” and “yam” are used interchangeably, but true yams actually belong to a different plant family, Dioscorea. Dioscorea includes hundreds of mostly tropical species that produce fast-growing vines and heart-shaped leaves. Some are grown for ornamental purposes but many species are edible. Most are from temperate areas in Africa, Asia, and South America. One American species, Dioscorea villosa, grows wild as far north as Rhode Island, but is not edible.
One of the most widely cultivated species, Dioscorea cayenensis, is from Western Africa and was brought to America as provisions for enslaved people.
Today, celery typically plays a minor role in Thanksgiving, adding a crunch to stuffing, but for many years celery and olives were Thanksgiving mainstays.
Native to Mediterranean climates in Europe, Asia and Africa, celery, Apium graveolens, has been cultivated by humans for centuries. The celery we’re familiar with today became popular in Europe in the late 17th and early 18th century, and didn’t make its way to America until the early 19th century.
No modern Thanksgiving would be complete without sugar. The sweet ingredient is key in desserts like pies and sides like cranberry sauce and many sweet potato dishes. The native range of sugar cane, saccharum officinarum, is tropical southeastern Asia, where it has been cultivated since roughly 4,000 B.C. Spanish and Portuguese explorers spread this crop, cultivated for its sweet stems, around the world in voyages during the 15th and 16th century.
Another Thanksgiving pie staple, the key ingredient to the “all-American” apple pie is actually not American. The apples we eat and bake with, Malus domestica, are originally from Asia. The genus Malus does include crabapple varieties native to North America, which aren’t quite as tasty in pies.
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Aurora Prehn, Andrew Townesmith, Wendy Applequist, Robbie Hart, and Emily Warschefsky with the William L. Brown Center collaborated on research for this blog.