The First Thanksgiving and Our Agroecological Founding

By Giulio Caperchi

This post was originally published on the Small Planet Institute website on November 26 2013

Buckled hats, golden leaves, roasted turkeys and steaming ears of corn. Hardy Pilgrims and noble Wampanoag tribesmen sharing hard-earned food in a mutual gesture of thanks for the bounty bestowed upon the table. No myth has a hold on the American collective imagination as the myth of the First Thanksgiving. It predates all political and military founding stories and conjures images of an innocent, pastoral past.

William Lockhart Made The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). Courtesy of WikiCommons

William Lockhart Made The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). Courtesy of WikiCommons

Without a doubt, Thanksgiving is the quintessential all-American holiday. As such, the tale of how the First Thanksgiving happened plays an important role in defining Americanness. Much has been said about what factually happened on the third Thursday of October 1621, with historians arguing over who attended and who brought what to the dinner table. But it is equally important to engage with the actual myth we have created, as founding myths are central to the way a community of people thinks of itself. [i]

In our case, reading between the lines of the first legendary Thanksgiving menu might yield a surprising new interpretation of what it means to be American.

On the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation, we are told, Governor William Bradford and the Pilgrims were joined by ninety members of the Wampanoag Confederacy led by their sachem Massasoit in an outdoor feast celebrating the autumn harvest. Following the infamous First Winter, which felled many brave Pilgrims, an English-speaking native named Squanto taught the distraught Colony how to plant corn in the Wampanoag fashion. His simple lesson saved them from starvation.

The three-day-long feast was thus meant to thank God and the Wampanoag people for a bountiful harvest and has today come to symbolize an instance of intercultural harmony and dialogue. So what exactly was Squanto supposed to have taught the Pilgrims?

While there is much debate, a common version of the myth tells us that Squanto taught the Englishmen a Native American agricultural practice called the Three Sisters, a polycultural technique involving the planting of squash, beans and corn in close proximity. The three different plants bring mutual benefits to each other allowing them to grow faster and healthier than if on their own, while simultaneously providing excellent sources of protein, carbohydrates and other essential micronutrients.

Researchers tell us today that the Native American tribes of southern New England made their living through horticulture, hunting and fishing. As hunting was traditionally a male endeavor, women were the expert agronomists. They used bio-indicators (the changing color of certain leaves, for example) and the position of the stars to know when to plant or harvest. They fertilized the soil with ash and probably with fish remains and knew when to leave the land fallow. They selected specific varieties of corn and bean seeds best suited for their particular microclimates. Their agricultural practices took advantage of the natural synergies found spontaneously in nature, as in the example of the Three Sisters: beans fixing nitrogen in the soil while climbing the stalks of corn, and the squash’s large foliage starving nasty weeds of sunlight.[ii]

The type of horticulture they practiced was knowledge intensive. Today, these same techniques have been extensively researched and are part of a growing discipline called agroecology. Simply put, agroecology consists of the application of ecological science to the growing of crops and the management of farms. Agroeocological farms are usually small and very diversified, forgoing chemical fertilizers, thereby minimizing the need for fossil fuels. Just like those of the Wampanoag’s, agroecological systems are polycultural and many experiments have proven that their diversity makes them more resilient to climate change than monocultures. Other tests have shown that on average small farms produce more food per acre than large industrial ones. In fact, a University of Michigan study calculated that, contrary to what many critics say, if we were to switch to this type of sustainable agriculture it could produce enough food to satisfy the needs of every human being and projected population growth.[iii]

Thus, if we are to believe the First Thanksgiving myth, the Pilgrims would not have survived another unforgiving New England winter without the Wampanoag’s lesson in agroecology.

Ironically, today some insist that industrial agriculture is quintessentially American. They assert that chemical-intensive and GMO-powered giant farms are the only actors capable of feeding the world. But what if these views are the real myths?

The sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture is here; it is grounded in scientific research and has proven to work. Moreover, agroecology may be traced back to the original cultures of the Americas. So this Thanksgiving let us celebrate what we know is not a myth: that ancient wisdom that made this great holiday possible in the first place.


[i] For an idea of how the myth of the First Thanksgiving has been reinterpreted throughout American history see James Baker, Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2009)

[ii] For an in-depth study of New England Native American agricultural practices see Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender and Science in New England, (Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1989)

[iii] For references and additional info on Agroecological theory and practice please check out the Small Planet Agroecology Fact Sheet

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