At the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims had never seen such a feast.

The First Thanksgiving

It wasn’t easy being a Pilgrim. After the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock in December of 1620, nearly half its 102 passengers died during their first winter ashore.  Only 53 scurvy-ridden immigrants survived until the next autumn; their number included only four adult women.  Most of the colonists were in poor health, and few of them were skilled farmers or hunters. Fortunately, their new neighbors were glad to share a little squash and venison now and then.

With good reason, these and other colonists were impressed by Native Americans’ hunting skills. One in Virginia describes the Roanokes “… being secretly hidden among high reeds where oftentimes they find the deere asleep and so kill them.”  John Smith reported that “When they have shot a deare by land, they follow him like blood hounds by the blood and straine, and oftentimes so take them.”

The Pilgrims’ new neighbors, the area’s original inhabitants, were the Wampanoag.  Like most tribes, they were competent hunters and farmers.  But somehow that doesn’t quite fit with what most of us learned in school about who catered the first Thanksgiving dinner party.

In his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, historian James Loewen describes how “Our archetypal image of the first Thanksgiving portrays the groaning boards in the woods, with the Pilgrims in their starched Sunday best and the almost naked Indian guests. Thanksgiving silliness reaches some sort of zenith in the handouts that school children have carried home for decades, with captions like, ‘They served pumpkins and turkeys and corn and squash. The Indians had never seen such a feast!’ When his son brought home this ‘information’ from his New Hampshire elementary school, Native American novelist Michael Dorris pointed out ‘the Pilgrims had literally never seen such a feast, since all foods mentioned are exclusively indigenous to the Americas and had been provided by [or with the aid of] the local tribe.’”

For over a century, our mental pictures of the first Thanksgiving have been reinforced by actual pictures.  America’s most well-known image of The First Thanksgiving is the 1899 oil painting of that title by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.  It shows a crowd of well-fed, rosy-cheeked pilgrims offering heaping platters of food to a half-dozen Indians sitting cross-legged on the ground.  All wear clothing more typical of that worn by Indians of the Great Plains.  A 1914 oil painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe shows a similar scene, this time with most of the Indians sitting on the grass in the distant background. In both paintings, half-naked Indians seem noticeably under-dressed for late November in Massachusetts.

Both paintings suggest that dinner was provided by generous Pilgrims.  The truth, however, was somewhat different, and the Indians must have viewed the Pilgrims as we would that bachelor uncle who always arrives at Thanksgiving dinner with a bag of chips and a jar of dill pickles.  But since the three-day feast was attended by 53 pilgrims and around 90 Indians, maybe it’s only fair that the Indians brought most of the food—and also most of the choicest dishes.

Which brings us to the second-biggest myth about that first Thanksgiving—the menu itself.  It featured no potatoes, either mashed or sweet. No green beans baked with cream of mushroom soup and crispy onions.  No pumpkin pie or squash with marshmallows on top—but probably roast or boiled pumpkin and squash, most of it provided by the Indians.  No stuffing, and probably no turkey, either.

The most reliable written account of the occasion is from Edward Winslow. In it, he makes no mention of turkey. But when writing about wild game, Winslow and his contemporaries almost always named waterfowl and turkey specifically—probably because each bird was large enough to provide a solid meal.  He mentions one outing, for example, when “wee got three fat geese and six ducks to our supper, which we eate with soldiers stomachs, for we had eaten little all that day…”  On another trip he and his companions remained hungry: “…wee saw great flockes of wild geese and duckes, but they were very fearefull of us.”

When writing of the first Thanksgiving, however, Winslow only mentions some sort of generic “fowle” that was most likely heath hen. This two-pound bird, a relative of the prairie chicken, was once quite common along the entire eastern seaboard. Because they were easy to hunt and tasted like chicken, they are now extinct.

By 1621, their fate was already sealed.  Writes Winslow: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labours. They foure in one day killed as much fowle as, with a little helpe beside, served the company almost a weeke.”  Figure enough birds to feed 53 hungry Pilgrims for a week, and maybe even a few of the 90 or so Indians who joined them for the party, and that’s a lot of “fowle.”

Besides Winslow’s account, the only other description of that first Thanksgiving is from William Bradford, who does indeed mention turkeys. But Bradford, unlike Winslow, was writing about his recollections 20 years after the fact. He appears to have made a number of other adjustments to the day’s menu, and he also put a far more positive spin on the Pilgrims’ diet during the months before and after.  Knowing his account will be questioned, he seems a little defensive: “Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.”

Winslow, meanwhile, notes that the Indians “went out and killed five Deere which they brought to the Plantacion, and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captain, and others.”  So at that first Thanksgiving in 1621, it seems likely that turkey wasn’t even on the menu. One thing is certain, however. The main course was venison.

Then, as now, it would have been delicious.  The Pilgrims had never seen such a feast.

First Thanksgiving painting by Brownscombe


Hunters, Be Safe Out There (A Cuts, Clots, and Falls Update)

After You Fall From a Treestand, copyright Al Cambronne

Statistically, deer hunting is a very safe pastime.  And yet….

The other day someone tweeted a link to a hunter safety post I wrote way back in the fall of 2011.  (Thank you for that!)  At the time I was still researching my book DEERLAND: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.  Feels like ages ago.  But if you’re a deer hunter, that post is still worth another look.

Because you know, it always happens to someone else.  Until it happens to you.

Although hunting is just one part of the larger environmental and cultural story I tell in DEERLAND, it was fascinating to explore American deer-hunting culture.  It’s one that’s changed dramatically over just a single generation, and this has in turn changed hunters’ whole risk equation.  Today fewer hunters participate in group deer drives; more of them hunt alone.  Fewer sit on stumps; more sit in treestands.  Just as many hunt with firearms, but far more of them also hunt with bows and crossbows.

It all adds up to fewer hunters accidentally shooting each other, but more of them cutting themselves on razor sharp broadheads.  In addition to bleeding, hunters can also worry about just the opposite: blood clots from sitting still for so long.  Here’s more on that from Dan Schmidt, the editor of Deer & Deer HuntingHe just had quite a wake-up call.

I’m a relatively unskilled deer hunter, and I’m especially lacking in the ability to sit motionless all day in cold weather.  Who knows?  In addition to saving the lives of a few deer, maybe that’s even saved mine.  But blood clots are no joke, and I bet it’s something we’ll be hearing more about in this context—and all because of a big change in American deer hunting culture.  Never before have so many been so frozen and yet sat so still for so long.

Of course, the greatest risk for modern deer hunters is falling from treestands.  It’s something we rarely heard of a generation ago—mainly because back then hardly anyone hunted from treestands.  Now almost everyone does.

But treestands don’t have to be dangerous.  Wear a safety harness, and stay clipped in from the moment you start climbing until both your boots are back on the ground.  It’s great that you’re clipped in while you sit up there, but a large percentage of falls happen on the way up or the way down.  That first step out of the treestand can be a long one.

That’s what happened last year to a guy I know.  Friend of a neighbor.  Broke his back, several ribs, and various other bones.  After regaining consciousness he was able to crawl, very slowly, for almost half a mile to the nearest dirt road.  (He had a phone, but it fell out of his pocket and he couldn’t raise his head high enough to see where it landed.)  Fortunately he fell early in the afternoon, not right after sunset.  It was almost dusk when he reached the road, which is fairly isolated and doesn’t have any year-round dwellings on it.  It was a weekday, and the guy who found him was probably the last person who’d have driven by until sometime the next day.  He rarely drives that route; that day for some reason he’d taken the long way, just on a whim.

So the guy survived.  He was given a long helicopter ride straight to a big hospital down in the city; apparently his spinal injuries were pretty serious.  He might have been paralyzed, but was not.  For the first months after his fall, he wore a rigid plastic body brace that closely resembled a giant turtle shell—especially since it was in a greenish camo color.  His back brace came off after a few months, and by late spring he was walking fairly well.  He’s doing OK now.

If that story doesn’t make you think about treestand safety, I don’t know what will.  But as an extra visual aid, I’ve included two simulated POV shots.  Above: The first thing you’d see after you hit the ground—and maybe the last.  Below: What you’d see if were crawling out of the woods for half a mile with a broken back, broken ribs, a few other broken bones besides.  It’s raining this afternoon, so the photo is a bit dark and blurry.  But then, under those circumstances your vision would be getting a little dark and blurry.

So all you deer hunters out there…  Wear a safety harness, and stay clipped in—including on the way up and the way back down.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

Crawling Out of the Woods, copyright Al Cambronne

Studying Deer Impacts at New York’s Binghamton University

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Ever since DEERLAND hit the streets, readers have been sharing with me their stories and photos. Some are ordinary citizens, like the woman from Long Island who sent me before-and-after photos of what happens when exploding deer populations far exceed what their habitat can support.  Others are botanists and ecologists whose job it is to get out into the woods—or at least what’s left of them—and actually study the ecological impacts of overabundant deer.

One of those experts is Tom Rawinski, a botanist with the USDA Forest Service.  He’s just shared a trip report from his recent assessment of deer impacts at New York’s Binghamton University, and both the numbers and the images are astounding.

(Before I continue, I should mention that Binghamton has experts of its own who study deer impacts on the university’s 900-acre campus, over 600 acres of which is in an undeveloped natural state.  They include Drs. Richard Andrus and John Titus, plus Dylan Horvath, who’s responsible for managing the university’s nature preserve.  Most universities have botany professors who can help students better understand deer impacts.  But professors at Binghamton can actually show students these impacts right on their own campus—including the stark contrast visible at six different exclosures.)

Since Binghamton’s deer are totally habituated, and since there’s almost no understory where they could hide, they were especially easy to count.  In one 33-acre area, deer densities would extrapolate to 349 per square mile.  Over the entire 600-acre area, deer densities are currently at 145 per square mile, far above what’s sustainable.  In his report, Rawinski describes the clear ecological consequences: “At present, there are no trees, of any species, able to successfully regenerate in the B.U. forests.”

Rawinksi’s photos alone tell a story.  In the photo above, the forest understory is totally missing.  Below, the only green on the forest floor is from ferns and sedges that deer find unpalatable.

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Below, you can see an area that’s more visually appealing.  On these soils, a dense mat of sedge and grass dominates the understory.  It’s still, however, a sign of severe deer impacts.  This is not a healthy forest.

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The next photo shows an especially crisp, sharp browse line.  It almost looks like humans have been out there with hedge trimmers.  But no.  Just extremely hungry deer.

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Finally, one last photo of a forest that’s open enough to accommodate a fast-paced game of disc golf.

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© 2014 Al Cambronne.  All photos courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski.