There's a famous passage from a 17th century collection of recollections by Pilgrim leaders William Bradford and Edward Winslow that's often quoted in reference to Thanksgiving:
That night we returned again a-shipboard, with resolution the next morning to settle on some of those places; so in the morning, after we had called on God for direction, we came to this resolution: to go presently ashore again, and to take a better view of two places, which we thought most fitting for us, for we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our beere, and it being now the 19th of December .[emphasis mine]
That debunks a late November landing, in time for what we know call 'Thanksgiving.' And, that part about the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock because they had run out of beer? Not so fast, says beer historian Bob Skilnik. 1 That's not exactly what transpired.
Land was sighted on November 9  but [the Pilgrims] didn't attempt to set out a landing party until days later, when they also realized they were no where near the Virginia Colony but instead were off Cape Cod. By December 4, they knew they had to quit being picky about where they were and settle down. Cold weather and disease were starting to take their toll. After an armed run in with some more Indians, the Mayflower headed south and another expedition found "running brooks," cornfields, and after sounding the depth of the harbor, realized this was about as good as it could get in the middle of December and the dead of winter. Despite what looked like prime territory, they took yet another look around, finally resolving that it was time to make a decision, pick a spot and start a settlement.
That was some seriously unfortunate dithering by the Pilgrims.
So what we have here, my friends, is NOT a party of starving Pilgrims who simply pulled up to Plymouth Rock because they were out of beer, had no water and no "victuals" on hand. No, what has been described instead was a group of naive individuals who called a little bit too much on God for direction, failed to heed the philosophy that "God helps those who help themselves," took too long to pick a spot to settle down, even if it was to only to be for the winter, and as a result of indecision, watched as more than half of them died through the winter.
Despite this, the Pilgrims would survive. That they, passionate Christians, prized their supply of beer as an essential foodstuff, that they did indeed drink beer, stands in contrast to some less-tolerant modern-day religious views of alcohol.
By the way, the ship's crew —hired hands— had not run out of their beer. The crew had stored a stash for their return trip to England, after winter storms had abated. It was not for the passengers. Water was not always a healthy drink in those days; sanitation was far from pristine. Beer could be a potable substitute. On shipboard, however, that beer would not be low-alcohol or 'small' beer, as has often been reported. It was 'Ship's Beer', which, according to Skilnik, was "brewed to a high alcoholic content in order to keep it viable during a prolonged sea passage."
It wouldn't be until two years later, in 1621, that the Pilgrims would first unofficially observe a Thanksgiving, celebrating the colony's first successful harvest, with the Wampanoag, the local Native American tribe. In the ensuing decades, several local governments would proclaim days of thanksgiving, and, then, over a century later, President George Washington would declare a national day of Thanksgiving, in 1789. Several succeeding presidents would, as well.
Advocacy by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale —a supporter of women's rights, a co-founder of Vassar College, an influential 19th century literary critic, and the author of Mary Had A Little Lamb— would convince President Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, to officially declare the fourth Thursday of November 1863, as Thanksgiving, a national holiday. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt would sign a bill legally stipulating the holiday to fall on the fourth Thursday of November. 2
Be safe in your travels this Thanksgiving ... and, once you get there, stay put, give thanks, and enjoy your beer(e).
- 1 Bob Skilnik is the the author of a history of American beer and food (now unfortunately out-of-print: Beer & Food: An American History.
- Skilnik's website is still up, but is not fully functional. It no longer links to his full essay on the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. (I wrote an earlier version of this post, in 2007, when his website was still active.)
- The late William Brand of the Oakland Tribune wrote a good synopsis of Skilniks' research. Here, from 2007.
- 2 My references for the history of Thanksgiving is from Wikipedia. Not rigorous, I know, but sources are given for the data.
- The painting at the top of the page, "The First Thanksgiving," is by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850–1936), "an American painter, designer, etcher, commercial artist and illustrator. Brownscombe studied art for years in the United States and in Paris. She was a founding member, student and teacher at the Art Students League of New York. She made genre paintings, including revolutionary and colonial American history." Wikipedia (again!).
- "To give thanks is a matter of joy. Should that be confined by excessive sobriety?" How Michael Jackson, the British beer writer, saw American Thanksgiving: here.