How Maritime History is Woven Within Thanksgiving

Family gatherings and a big turkey feast will likely be your first thoughts when someone says “Thanksgiving.” While there isn’t a direct and inherent connection between maritime activities and the holiday, maritime elements are indirectly associated with Thanksgiving in specific contexts.

First, pilgrims and the Mayflower are deeply rooted in the historical origins of Thanksgiving in the U.S., which trace back to the 1620 arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower at Plymouth, Mass. The Pilgrims, seeking religious freedom, made a perilous journey across the Atlantic. While Thanksgiving focuses on the harvest feast shared between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, the maritime voyage is a significant historical narrative aspect.

The Mayflower was a type of ship known as a “caravel.” Caravels were a small, highly maneuverable sailing ship that originated in the 15th century. European explorers widely used them during the Age of Discovery. However, the term “caravel” is often associated with earlier exploratory vessels, and the Mayflower itself also has been described as a “tall ship” or a “ship of burden.”

Maritime transportation also played a crucial role in the distribution of goods, including the traditional food items that we see on our Thanksgiving tables. The reliance on maritime trade to bring various products, such as seafood, fruits and other goods, should be acknowledged during the holiday.

According to History.com, culinary historians believe that the first Thanksgiving meal consisted of seafood, specifically mussels, not traditionally found on today’s menu. Mussels were abundant in New England and could be easily harvested because they were easy to collect as they clung to rocks along the shoreline. The colonists periodically served mussels with curds, a dairy product similar to cottage cheese. Lobsters, bass, clams and oysters might also have been on everyone’s plates.

“Colonist Edward Winslow, described the bounty of seafood near Plymouth, according to an article from History.com: “Our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish; in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night with small labor, and can dig them out of their beds all the winter. We have mussels … at our doors. Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will.”

Additionally, Thanksgiving celebrations have often included maritime-themed events or activities in coastal communities such as those along the southern California coast from San Diego to Ventura. For example, some organize boat parades, regattas or waterfront festivals as part of their Thanksgiving festivities. So, while the maritime aspect is not central to the concept of Thanksgiving, it is intertwined with the historical origins of the holiday. In regions with strong maritime traditions, events or celebrations incorporate nautical elements into Thanksgiving observances.

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