Saturday, November 11, 2023

1621 Gossip 0n 4 Women who Cooked the 1st Puritan Thanksgiving

1899 painting, The 1st Puritan Thanksgiving 1621 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris   Jean Leon Gerome Ferris !863-1930)  was an American painter best known for his series of 78 scenes from American history, entitled The Pageant of a Nation, the largest series of American historical paintings by a single artist.

Four Women Who Cooked the 1st Puritan Thanksgiving

The New England Historical Society conjectures that 4 women who cooked the 1st Puritan Thanksgiving probably didn’t feel all that thankful, when they learned there would be 90 guests, all Wampanoag men that their husbands may have invited , to eat with them.

They were the only women left after the 1st deadly winter that killed half of Plymouth Colony. They died of exhaustion, starvation, pneumonia, scurvy & cold. By springtime, 14 women had perished. The 4 women left managed to feed 143 people without kitchens, ovens, wheat, spices or butter.

Their dinner guests may have shown up unexpectedly, or...perhaps their menfolk had invited them to seal a peace deal. The meal itself – or rather meals, because they stayed for three days – served as more of a harvest celebration than a Thanksgiving.

The women faced another challenge: getting along with each other. Cooking for so many people required cooperation among the 4, who had different backgrounds & aspirations. They included a Saint, a Goodwife, a Traveler & a Troublemaker.

The colonists referred to themselves as “Saints” & “Strangers” or “Travelers.” The devout Saints wanted to separate from the Church of England & crossed the Atlantic for religious freedom. Strangers came for adventure & opportunity. That both Saints & Strangers signed the Mayflower Compact shows the inclusiveness of the colonists.

That 1st Puritan Thanksgiving was cooked by 2 Saints, Mary Brewster & Susanna Winslow, & 2 Strangers, Elizabeth Hopkins & Eleanor Billington. But they probably all deserved sainthood for cooking all that food. The men just “feasted & entertained,” according to one of their husbands.

Goodwife Susanna White Winslow had married Edward Winslow, had married Susanna in May, about 5 months earlier. He would serve as Plymouth’s governor & diplomat, & together they would prosper. So at 29, Susanna Winslow was a rising figure in the little colony...

Her 1st husband had a common name, & no one seems to really know which Englishman named William White boarded the Mayflower with her. Susanna & William brought their young son, Resolved, about 5 years old. Susanna was pregnant, & gave birth to their 2nd son, Peregrine, below decks on the Mayflower as it lay at anchor in Massachusetts Bay. Odd as “Resolved” & “Peregrine” may seem, their names were typical of the Puritans. They suggest Susanna was a Saint.

William died in February & another  wife Elizabeth Winslow died in March. Forty-eight days after Elizabeth died, Edward married Susanna. He brought to the union a daughter, Margaret, about 3 years old.

Edward & Susanna had practical & emotional reasons for marrying so soon after their spouses died. Martyn Whittock points out in Mayflower Lives, “Shared faith, shared history, mutual respect, &, no doubt, physical as well as emotional attraction drew them together. & there is plenty of evidence for loving physical union enhancing partnership in the godly marriages.”

A portrait of Edward Winslow suggests a happy marriage. In his hand he holds a letter. The last three lines read, “From your loving wife, Susanna.” The portrait was painted in 1651, 30 years after their wedding.

William Brewster's wife was Mary Brewster, who was a Saint. Puritans believed in social hierarchy, so one can easily guess who took charge of the cooking operation. Mary probably wished she had the help of her 2 daughters, Patience, 21, & Fear, 15, to cook for all those people. But the Brewsters left their daughters behind. They believed, like many of the colonists, that the weaker sex might not survive the journey. That Mary joined her husband tells us something about her grit, her courage & her deep religious faith.

The Brewsters did bring their two boys with them, Love & Wrestling, about 11 & 7 at the 1st Thanksgiving. They would have helped prepare the meal, along with little Resolved White & Margaret Winslow. Richard More, their 7-year-old servant, would have helped, too.

Young Richard had come with three siblings, all dead by the time of the 1st Thanksgiving. Known as one of the Mayflower Love Children, Richard’s legal father had sent the children to America, when he discovered he was not their biological father. Patience & Fear arrived in Plymouth a few years later, along with older brother Jonathan. Fear married another saint, Isaac Allerton.

Another female survivor was Elizabeth Hopkins, Traveler. Two years before boarding the Mayflower, Elizabeth Hopkins, married one of the most interesting Plymouth colonists, Stephen Hopkins. She was 33, he was a 36-year-old widower with 3 children. He had already survived a shipwreck in the Caribbean & taken part in the settlement of Jamestown before returning to England. His adventure as a castaway on a Caribbean island probably inspired Shakespeare to create the character Stephano in The Tempest.

Stephen, a rough-&-ready sort, planned to return to Virginia with his family. His family included Constance, 14, & Giles, 12, the t2 surviving children from his 1st marriage. Little Damaris was about three.  She probably hoped to have her baby on land, but crosswinds & storms extended the unpleasant Mayflower voyage. She gave birth to Oceanus in a dark, cramped berth below the decks of the gyrating vessel.

Stephen, though a Traveler, held a position of importance in the colony. Because of his time in Jamestown, he could hunt, & he knew about Native Americans. When the English-speaking Native American Samoset came to Plymouth, Elizabeth & Stephen put him up that night in their tiny house.

The house had at the very most three rooms, cramped quarters 4 adults, 3 children & the Hopkins’ 2 servants, Edward Doty & Edward Leister. The crowding probably didn’t help anyone’s temper. The 2 servants had fought & wounded each other in a sword-&-dagger duel a few months before that Thanksgiving...

 They would have 5 more children, run a tavern & occasionally get into trouble with the authorities. Stephen had to pay fines for allowing drinking & shuffleboard on Sunday, for overserving & for overcharging customers. But theirs seems to have been a successful partnership. When Stephen died in 1644 his will directed he be buried as close as possible to Elizabeth.

Eleanor Billington, on the other hand, was a troublemaker from a troublemaking family. The younger of her 2 sons, Francis, nearly burned down the Mayflower as it lay anchored in Plymouth Harrbor in December of 1620. He’d set off some homemade fireworks with his father’s gunpowder.

Eleanor had a hard time controlling her sons... Both tended to wander off unsupervised. In one case her older son John roamed into a camp of Nausets, who had clashed with the colonists upon their 1st arrival.

Gov. William Bradford described Eleanor’s husband, John Billington, as “a knave.” Billington contemptuously challenged Capt. Myles Standish’s orders during a militia drill in March 1621.Had he not begged forgiveness, the Plymouth authorities would have punished him. In 1630, he did get punished – hanged for murdering a neighbor. Bradford then described the Billingtons as one of the “profanest families among them.” He could not understand how the Pilgrims had allowed them to join them from London.

Eleanor Billington also caused trouble. In 1636, she went to the stocks & received a whipping for slandering another Plymouth citizen, John Doane.

Five teenaged girls survived the winter, & they would have worked alongside the 4 Thanksgiving cooks. Mary Chilton was 14 when she came ashore from the Mayflower, the 1st woman to set foot on Plymouth soil.

The oldest, Priscilla Mullins, at 19 had lost her mother, father & brother during the winter. She would soon marry John Alden after a courtship immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, their descendant. 

Constance Hopkins (13 or 14), Elizabeth Tilley (14 or 15) & Dorothy, an unnamed maidservant, perhaps 18 or 19, would have helped prepare the meal as well. They probably also had to keep an eye on the children, who included Bartholomew, Mary & Remember Allerton, Humility Cooper, Samuel Eaton & Desire Minter. The older ones would have helped.

Perhaps the teenagers minded fires, turned spits, carried water, plucked wildfowl or shucked shellfish. Maybe the lucky ones got the easy job of setting the tables – rough boards covered with cloth. They had just knives & spoons, as the 1st fork wouldn’t arrive in America until 1633. Tableware would have included pewter or wooden trenchers, tankards & lots & lots of napkins. Since they ate roast meat with their hands, napkins were a must.

While the women cooked, the men entertained their guests. They showed off their military drills for the Wampanoags. & theymight have played a version of football on the beach with the Natives, using a deerskin ball stuffed with deer hair.

At least they’d brought food. Bradford ordered 4 (probably including Stephen Hopkins) to shoot wildfowl. They blasted their muskets for the benefit of the Wampanoags, who outnumbered them.

They may have shot some turkey, but they most likely got duck, geese, swans & maybe even carrier pigeon. The women would have plucked, trimmed & trussed them, then spit-roasted the small birds & boiled the larger ones.

They may have stuffed the birds with onions & herbs from their garden, & maybe chestnuts from the woods. The next day, they would have taken the leftover meat & made a broth or a potage in their Dutch ovens.

The Wampanoags killed 5 deer & brought them as gifts. The women would have also cooked them on spits outdoors. Vegetables like corn, turnips, cabbages & carrots went into Dutch ovens on the hearths.

They would have eaten lobster, mussels & clams without butter, because cows didn’t arrive until later. Cod, bass & eels likely appeared on the tables.

They probably also served native fruit—cranberries, wild plums, melons & grapes – as well as walnuts, beechnuts & chestnuts.

Pumpkin, called pompion, undoubtedly would have appeared on the menu. The early colonists ate vast quantities of the stuff. In fact, the 1st American folk song is a lament about how much pumpkin they ate. The 4 women who cooked the 1st Puritan Thanksgiving most certainly did not make pumpkin pie. With no flour, sugar or baking ovens, they probably just stewed it.