The four women who cooked that first Thanksgiving probably didn’t feel all that thankful when their husbands invited 90 guests, all Wampanoag men, to eat with them.
They were the only women left after the first deadly winter that killed half of Plymouth Colony. They died of exhaustion, starvation, pneumonia, scurvy and cold. By springtime, 14 women had perished. Remarkably, the four women left managed to feed 143 people without kitchens, ovens, wheat, spices or butter.
Their dinner guests may have shown up unexpectedly, as the Native people had a tendency to appear when food was served. 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 Four Women Who Cooked the First Thanksgiving
The women faced another challenge: getting along with each other. Cooking for so m any people required cooperation among the four, who had different backgrounds and aspirations. They included a Saint, a Goodwife, a Traveler and a Troublemaker.
The colonists referred to themselves as “Saints” and “Strangers” or “Travelers.” The devout Saints wanted to separate from the Church of England and crossed the Atlantic for religious freedom. Strangers came for adventure and opportunity. That both Saints and Strangers signed the Mayflower Compact shows the inclusiveness of the colonists.
That first Thanksgiving was cooked by two Saints, Mary Brewster and Susanna Winslow, and two Strangers, Elizabeth Hopkins and Eleanor Billington.
But they probably all deserved sainthood for cooking all that food. The men just “feasted and entertained,” according to one of their husbands.
Goodwife Susanna Winslow
That husband, Edward Winslow, had married Susanna White in May, about five months earlier. He would serve as Plymouth’s governor and diplomat, and together they would prosper.
So at 29, Susanna Winslow was a rising figure in the little colony, a goodwife who would grow into a mistress.
Historians can’t tell for sure whether Susanna arrived as a Saint or a Stranger. Her first husband had a common name, and women didn’t leave much of a record. So no one seems to really know which Englishman named William White boarded the Mayflower.
Susanna and William brought their young son, Resolved, about five years old. Susanna was pregnant, and gave birth to their second son, Peregrine, below decks on the Mayflower as it lay at anchor in Massachusetts Bay. Odd as “Resolved” and “Peregrine” may seem, their names were typical of the Puritans. They suggest Susanna was a Saint.
William died in February and Elizabeth Winslow in March. Forty-eight days after Elizabeth died, Edward married Susanna. He brought to the union a daughter, Margaret, about three years old.
Edward and Susanna had practical and emotional reasons for marrying so soon after their spouses died. As Martyn Whittock points out in Mayflower Lives, “Shared faith, shared history, mutual respect, and, no doubt, physical as well as emotional attraction drew them together. And 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.
Mary Brewster, Saint
Puritans believed in social hierarchy, so one can easily guess who took charge of the cooking operation:
52-year-old Mary Brewster, wife of the Saints’ spiritual leader, William Brewster.
Mary probably wished she had the help of her two daughters, Patience, 21, and 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 explains why so few women cooked the first Thanksgiving.
That Mary joined her husband tells us something about her grit, her courage and her deep religious faith.
The Brewsters did bring their two boys with them, Love and Wrestling, about 11 and 7 at the first Thanksgiving. They would have helped prepare the meal, along with little Resolved White and Margaret Winslow. Richard More, their seven-year-old servant, would have helped, too.
Richard had come with three siblings, all dead by the time of the first 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 and Fear arrived in Plymouth a few years later, along with older brother Jonathan.
Fear married another saint, Isaac Allerton. Her great-great-great-grandson, Zachary Taylor, served as the 12th president of the United States.
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 a 36-year-old widower with three children. He had already survived a shipwreck in the Caribbean and 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-and-ready sort, planned to return to Virginia with his family. His family included Constance, 14, and Giles, 12, the two surviving children from his first marriage. Little Damaris, about three, may have been conceived before the marriage. Elizabeth was pregnant at the outset of the voyage.
She probably hoped to have her baby on land, but crosswinds and 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 and he knew about Native Americans. When the English-speaking Native American Samoset came to Plymouth, Elizabeth and Stephen put him up that night in their tiny house (the 1749 Court House Museum in downtown Plymouth stands on the site).
The house had at the very most three rooms, cramped quarters four adults, three children and the Hopkins’ two servants, Edward Doty and Edward Leister. The crowding probably didn’t help anyone’s temper. The two servants had fought and wounded each other in a sword-and-dagger duel a few months before that Thanksgiving.
Stephen was not the godly sort, and we can imagine Elizabeth wasn’t, either. They would have five more children, run a tavern and occasionally get into trouble with the authorities. Stephen had to pay fines for allowing drinking and shuffleboard on Sunday, for overserving and 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, Troublemaker
Eleanor Billington, on the other hand, was a troublemaker from a troublemaking family. The younger of her two 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, if she even tried. 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 first 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 and received a whipping for slandering another Plymouth citizen, John Doane.
But troublemakers have to eat, too, and Eleanor Billington undoubtedly pitched in to make that giant feast.
Five teenaged girls survived the winter, and they would have worked alongside the four Thanksgiving cooks. Mary Chilton was 14 when she came ashore from the Mayflower, the first woman to set foot on Plymouth soil.
The oldest, Priscilla Mullins, at 19 had lost her mother, father and brother during the winter. She would soon marry John Alden after a courtship immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, their descendant. Other descendants include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Marilyn Monroe and Calvin Coolidge.
Constance Hopkins (13 or 14), Elizabeth Tilley (14 or 15) and 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 and Remember Allerton, Humility Cooper, Samuel Eaton and Desire Minter. The older ones would have helped.
Perhaps they 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 and spoons, as the first fork wouldn’t arrive in America until 1633. Tableware would have included pewter or wooden trenchers, tankards and lots and lots of napkins. Since they ate roast meat with their hands, napkins were a must.
Football, But No Pumpkin Pie
While the women cooked, the men entertained their guests. They showed off their military drills for the Wampanoags. And they probably 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 four (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 and maybe even carrier pigeon. The women would have plucked, trimmed and trussed them, then spit-roasted the small birds and boiled the larger ones.
They may have stuffed the birds with onions and herbs from their garden, and maybe chestnuts from the woodss. The next day, they would have taken the leftover meat and made a broth or a potage in their Dutch ovens.
The Wampanoags killed five deer and brought them as gifts. The women would have also cooked them on spits outdoors. Vegetables like corn, turnips, cabbages and carrots went into Dutch ovens on the hearths.
They would have eaten lobster, mussels and clams without butter, because cows didn’t arrive until later. Cod, bass and eels likely appeared on the tables.
They probably also served native fruit—cranberries, wild plums, melons and grapes – as well as walnuts, beechnuts and chestnuts.
Pumpkin, called pompion, undoubtedly would have appeared on the menu. The early colonists ate vast quantities of the stuff. In fact, the first American folk song is a lament about how much pumpkin they ate.
The four women who cooked the first Thanksgiving most certainly did not make pumpkin pie. With no flour, sugar or baking ovens, they probably just stewed it.
But at least they had football.
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With thanks to Mayflower Lives: Pilgrims in a New World and the Early American Experience by Martyn Whittock. This story was updated in 2022.