The Colonists who Came to Dinner: Thanksgiving, L’Ordre des Bontemps, and Cook’s Tahitian Feasts
Greg Rogers, Ph.D. Candidate
As Thanksgiving approaches, historians, especially those interested in colonial New England, often take the opportunity to debunk the popular myths of the first Thanksgiving for any friend or family member that may (or may not) have asked. However, in addition to pointing fallacies such as that the feast shared by the Plymouth colonists and their Wampanoag neighbors probably did not consist of potatoes and stuffing and it was not held in the month of November, a historical examination of the first Thanksgiving provides us with some insights into the early settlement of New England. Furthermore, the investigation of meals between Europeans and native peoples in general provides fascinating glimpses into the encounters between disparate peoples. The first Thanksgiving can be placed in the larger context of colonial encounters, revealing elements that set the famous feast apart from other meals while revealing surprising similarities with people and locales beyond Plymouth.
The First Thanksgiving – Plymouth Colony, 1621
Contrary to popular conceptions, the first Thanksgiving was not a solemn meal of turkey shared exclusively by pilgrims and Indians. The actual event took place in either September or early October, at the time of the settlers’ first New England harvest. The event was not a single meal as often assumed but rather a three-day feast. Some fifty English and ninety Wampanoag Indians under the sachem Massasoit attended it, with the native peoples outnumbering the newcomers by almost a two to one ration. William Bradford estimated that about half of the original Mayflower passengers died of diseases such as scurvy during the first winter. In addition, the English present were not just the stoic Godly Pilgrims in their iconic brown and gray coats and buckled hats, but also a number of more worldly colonists that included tradesmen and soldiers. As a result, the feasts were probably raucous rather than genteel. Copious amount of food and drink were punctuated by marksmanship contests that included firearms and bows and arrows.
These weapons had recently procured much of the food. It included game birds (including turkey), cod, bass, and venison. Also conspicuously absent in accounts of the first Thanksgiving was the giving of thanks. Although colonist Edward Winslow’s account of the event noted, “…although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty,” the three day feast that occurred in 1621 more closely resembles the English tradition of harvest home. The English celebrated harvest home days since at least the sixteenth century. It was a multi-day celebration of the completion of the harvest, rather than a somber day of religious thanksgiving. Rather the creation of a purely new American tradition, the first Thanksgiving was a blend of Wampanoag and English foods and participants that marked the observation of an Old World custom in the New World.
L’Ordre de Bon Temps – Port-Royal, 1606
A generation earlier and about two hundred and fifty miles up the Atlantic coast, a group of French colonists under Jean de Biencourt and Samuel de Champlain celebrated good health and bountiful food by creating the L’Ordre de Bon Temps or “the Order of Good Cheer.” The Order, which was a low-cost medallion, was passed from one man to another on a bi-weekly basis. The holder of the order was responsible for procuring game for a feast held among colonial elites and a variety of Indian (usually Micmac) men, women, and children. Like Plymouth, the French colony of Port-Royal was in its first infancy during the winter of 1606-1607. Located on the southwestern shore of Nova Scotia/Acadia, the bi-weekly dining club served to raise morale and promote good health in the short, cold days of the first winter of the outpost. Whereas many of the English at Plymouth were the victims of scurvy during their first winter, the savvy Champlain made every effort to supply his colleagues with fresh game and fish in order to ward off the disease. However, unlike the three-day feast in southern New England, the meals and festivities of the Ordre de Bon Temps were limited to the elites of the colony and their Indian guests. Unlike the egalitarianism of the first Thanksgiving, colonists of the “lower orders” were not included, underscoring the persistence of European hierarchy that would continue to characterize New France to varying degrees into the next century.
In addition to the fish and game that were familiar to the Plymouth colonists, the French at Port-Royal also enjoyed fresh sturgeon, moose, and beaver tails. These latter two meats were considered to be delicacies among the French. Marc Lescarbot, the chief steward of the colony, remarked, “of all our meats none is so tender as moose-meat (whereof we made excellent pasties), and nothing so delicate as beaver’s tail.” Like the feasting in Plymouth, the meals in Port-Royal highlight several important themes in the early settlement of northeastern North America: the regularity of mingling between Europeans and Indians, the blending of Old and New World cuisine, and the codependence and hospitality that was possible between colonists and indigenous peoples.
Captain Cook’s First Voyage – Tahiti, 1769
From the dreary winters of the seventeenth-century Northeast to the sun soaked shores of the eighteenth-century South Pacific, Captain James Cook’s two-month long visit to the island of Tahiti also provides a window into expansionism and intercultural contact. While relations between the British crew aboard Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, and indigenous peoples in several ports of call including Tahiti, Hawaii, and New Zealand often degraded into mutual mistrust and violence, the culinary exchange between the European explorers and the Tahitian people in the spring of 1769 has been dubbed by one biographer of the captain as a “prolonged feast of mutual discovery.” From the moment that the ship anchored off of the island, islanders, sailors, and officers alike engaged in cross-cultural trade, sexual relations, and dining.
While the colonists of the colonial Northeast sampled local dishes such as moose and turkey, the British of over a century later were offered dog meat. Both Captain Cook and his shipboard naturalist, Joseph Banks, enjoyed the Tahitian delicacy. Cook remarked that it was “meat not to despised,” while Banks commented in his diary that it was “a most excellent dish.” Banks’ diary relates other mealtime exchanges. For instance, he comments that a chief from the western part of the island “imitates our manners in every instance already holding a knife and fork more handily than a Frenchman could learn to do in years,” underlining the imperial rivalry that permeated such voyages. In another instant, Cook remarks that watermelon and mustard seeds that were planted by his crew around their makeshift fortification “grew up and throve very fast,” touching upon the variety of biological and material exchanges that occurred as the result of Euopean exploration.
While dining was an important part of the discovery and exchange process, it also served diplomatic ends; by partaking in meals with the island’s leaders, Banks and Cook were able to ensure that there mission to observe the transit of Venus was carried out without interruption. Such feasts, which occurred regularly during the Endeavour’s stay, also draw attention to the theme of hierarchy. While Wampanoags and colonists mingled freely at the dining tables of Plymouth in 1621 and the French class structure was upheld at Port-Royal, the protocol of the Tahitian elites carried the day at least one feast. A chief that dined with the captain on May 1st refused to feed himself. Used to being handfed by women in his entourage, “he sat in [his] chair like a statute” until finally one of Cook’s servants was tasked with feeding the dignitary. Remember this if a friend or relative seems to be demanding during the upcoming holiday.
Greg Rogers, “The Colonists who Came to Dinner: Thanksgiving, L’Ordre des Bontemps, and Cook’s Tahitian Feasts,” Khronikos: the University of Maine graduate history student blog (blog), November 19, 2012, https://khronikosum.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/the-colonists-who-came-to-dinner-thanksgiving-lordre-des-bontemps-and-cooks-tahitian-feasts/.
Banks, Joseph. The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks, 1768-1771. University of Sydney Library, 1997. http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/p00021.pdf
Cook, James. Captain Cook’s Journal (First Voyage, chapter 3). http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Captain_Cook’s_Journal,_First_Voyage/Chapter_3
Conforti, Joseph. Saints and Strangers: New England in British North America.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Deetz, James and Patricia Scott Deetz. The Times of their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. New York: Random House, 2000.
Fischer, David Hackett. Champlain’s Dream. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008.
Horowitz, Tony. Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going where Captain Cook has Gone Before. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.
“Massasoit and his Warriors” and “Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” – New York Public Library – digital.nypl.org
“Evening feast in the tradition of Champlain’s Order of Good Cheer” – Library and Archives of Canada – collectionscanada.gc.ca
“An engraving of Captain Cook eating with Tahitians” – The Telegraph – telegraph.co.uk