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Naumkeag Thankgivings — A History of the Holiday in Salem

While the First Thanksgiving was in Plymouth, Salem was not far behind.

Thanksgiving conjures up visions of an open-air banquet where Puritans came together with Native Americans to give thanks at Plymouth.

This scene, deeply embedded in our national psyche, is based on a brief 1621 note found in early Plymouth writings. From that note, and the fact that Thanksgiving celebrations were an ongoing occurrence in colonial days, developed today’s Thanksgiving holiday that was codified into law by President Lincoln in 1863.

In examining the early Naumkeag/Salem settlement, there doesn’t appear to be any specific description of a Thanksgiving celebration with the local Native Americans. There are certainly allusions to welcoming natives who lived in close proximity to the settlers. There are also many instances of the government declaring days of thanksgiving. Given the populations involved during these early days, it does not seem unreasonable to conclude, as the Salem historian Felt did in his writings, that the colonists probably invited the local natives to many communal celebrations and to share in their Thanksgiving celebrations.

When John Smith sailed along this section of the New England coast in 1614, the native population was estimated to be about 3,000. These natives were members of the Naumkeag Tribe that belonged to the Pawtucket nation that stretched from the area north of Boston (Medford) to the Piscataqua River (Portsmouth NH).

"Nahum Keike" or Naumkeag in translation means fishing place. It appears that it was used to refer to the people and the place which would become Salem.

Before the arrival of Roger Conant and the settlers, there was a war between the Naumkeag and the Tarrantine tribe in 1615. The Tarrantines were from eastern Maine and had a history of being aggressive toward other tribes. The Tarrantines had partnered with French traders in the fur trade and were able to acquire European weapons, making them a formidable foe.

In 1615, in response to some incident where the Naumkeag had aided another tribe in a fight against the Tarrantines or some other provocation, the Tarrantines attacked the Naumkeag with devastating effectiveness. The following year, the Naumkeag as well as other Native Americans were further decimated by a plague or illness that killed so many, that the dead remained unburied because there were so few survivors.

Upon the arrival of the English settlers, the Naumkeag consisted of few survivors of the war and disease. It’s estimated that there were fewer than 300 natives in the area in 1626. The Naumkeag saw the settlers as welcome neighbors as well as possible protectors from further incursions by the Tarrantines, who didn’t believe in leaving survivors and would lead war parties to kill any Naumkeag they found. The settlers found lands and farms ready for use since 90 percent of the Naumkeag had died only a few years earlier, leaving their cultivated lands ready for use. The natives willingly shared their land. This close proximity is highlighted by early settlers’ statements about sharing fences with the natives.

Early settlers also provide good descriptions of the Wigwam Village of the Naumkeag that was along the north bank of the Naumkeag (North) River in the area that would become Mason Street. Early on, this area of Salem was known as Northfields and was farm country. The village for this farming community consisted of simple structures made of poles covered with bark or mats in the shape of a cone. These natives had bows, arrows and tomahawks as weapons. They traded in wampum as their currency. Wampum was sea shells gathered from the beaches. Their dress consisted of beaver, seal or deerskin outfits. The Naumkeag here were primarily farmers, hunters and fishermen and not nomadic.

Early settlers met Squaw Sachem, the widow of the late Sachem or King Nanapashemet who had been killed by the Tarrantines at his fortress on Castle Hill in Naumkeag in 1619. The name Castle Hill has endured and still designates that section of Salem.

Squaw Sachem had three sons who became rulers in Essex County; Sagamore John who was at Mystic, (Chelsea), Sagamore Joseph at Saugus
and Sagamore George at Naumkeag. After the deaths of his brothers in 1633, George became Sagamore ("ruler" sometimes used interchangeably with Sachem, "king"), to their areas.

When his mother passed away in 1667, he became the Sachem of the Naumkeag. He was captured during the Wampanoag War in 1676 and later died in 1684. He was also known as George Rumney Marsh and Sagamore George No-Nose by the colonists. It was his children who sold Salem to the colonists in 1686 after the family had moved to Lowell following the Wampanoag War. It’s reported that a band of Indians, presumably Naumkeag, returned to Salem on a yearly basis up to 1725 and camped on the side of Gallows Hill.

One of the earliest instances of a Day of Thanksgiving was by Gov. Winthrop shortly after his arrival in Salem with several hundred colonists. Gov. Winthrop, on his ship, Arbella, arrived on June 12, 1630. After some
10 or 11 other vessels made port over the next few weeks because of the rough stormy passage, he declared a Day of Thanksgiving to take place on the 8 of July. This was Thanksgiving for the safe arrival of the ships.

Throughout the early history of Salem, there are many yearly declarations by local government that there should be a day of Thanksgiving set aside. Usually these were called in response to God’s blessings on the colony for a good harvest and protection from enemies. Salem throughout this early period had a generally peaceful existence with few threats from enemies.

While no set date was ever chosen for Thanksgiving, it generally was during November after the harvest was in and the pace of the colony was settling into a winter perspective.

With no religious celebrations allowed among the Puritans, the harvest fairs and days of Thanksgiving were major events in Salem.  

It is generally believed that the food prepared for banquets and gatherings followed commonly know English recipes that were adapted to include local harvest products such as corn, squash, cranberries, etc., while excluding food not available in the colonies. Recipes that called for various spices, etc. were generally avoided due to their lack of availability and/or cost.

In 1911, the Esther Mack Industrial School of Salem published a cookbook, What Salem Dames Cooked with Salem recipes that dated back to 1683. Reportedly, the recipes chosen were from the earlier cookbook of 1683, The Compleat Cook. If you’d like to give a recipe a try, check out the attached PDF, which contains  What Salem Dames Cooked. The earlier, The Compleat Cook, is available online here.

Have A Happy Thanksgiving!



ACG November 23, 2011 at 02:22 PM
Thanks, fantastic article Jerome.

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