Four hundred years ago, in 1621, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, a Native people, feasted at what later became known as the first Thanksgiving. That fall in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims wanted to express gratitude for their first successful harvest since arriving on the Mayflower in 1620.
At the time, New England’s woods and waters teemed with life such as white-tailed deer, Atlantic cod, passenger pigeons, and lobster. Many of these species were likely on the feast menu.
“We were here for thousands of years before the Pilgrims landed, and these things were plentiful,” says Darius Coombs, a cultural outreach coordinator with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, a federally recognized tribe whose territory included what is now Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island. (Learn things you don’t know about the first Thanksgiving.)
Some species possibly eaten at the feast, such as the wild turkey, may be more numerous today than ever before. But for others, the arrival of the Europeans and the subsequent development of New England marked a new era of exploitation, most famously represented by the passenger pigeon, which went extinct due to overhunting in 1914. Animals such as the American eel, which is imperiled due to dam construction and other human disturbances, are still hanging on thanks to recent conservation efforts.
Over the past four centuries Americans have dramatically reshaped ecosystems, with dire consequences for many animals, says Eric Hutchins, a NOAA marine biologist who specializes in habitat restoration. The choices we make now will help to shape the next 400 years for countless species—including our own, he says.
“We need to restore natural habitats and give species as much resilience as possible, so that they can adapt with us as the climate changes,” Hutchins says. “We don’t know exactly what the future will bring.”
Wild turkeys embrace suburban living
Some historical sources claim turkey was not served at the first Thanksgiving. Kathy Rudder, a curator at Plimoth Patuxet Museums—a living history center focused on the Plymouth Colony and local Native peoples—thinks otherwise.
Rudder cites colonist Edward Winslow’s 1621 letter about the feast, one of only two accounts known, which says: “The governor sent four men fowling and in the course of an afternoon they brought back enough food to feed the entire town of 50 people for almost a week.”
Fowling could mean quail, duck, or goose, but it’s also likely to include turkey, especially because the letter mentions how plentiful and large the hens were, Rudder says.
Coombs agrees that turkeys, which once ranged throughout the continental U.S., were common fare among Native Americans. “Probably the two most common meats the Wampanoag people would have eaten would have been the deer and the turkey,” he says. (Read how turkeys can swim and other Thanksgiving facts.)
Unfortunately for the turkeys, they proved an easy mark for Europeans with firearms. In 1634, New England settler William Wood described how hunters might kill more than 20 turkeys a day or bag an entire flock roosting in a tree: “He may shoot as often as he will, they will sit, unless they be slenderly wounded.”
As more land was settled and the lumber industry boomed, entire forests fell to the axe. By the Civil War, New England’s turkeys had been entirely wiped out. In the mid-20th century, state wildlife agencies began reintroducing the birds from the forests of Pennsylvania and West Virginia into New England, hoping to restore ecosystems and revive turkey hunting.
With no gray wolves or mountain lions to fear; a welcoming mix of open space and forest; and copious free food, including backyard bird feeders, turkey populations rebounded dramatically. Now, wild turkeys in the U.S. total about six million and live in every state but Alaska.
A fish that built an economy struggles to survive
Six years before the Pilgrims arrived, in 1614, Jamestown settler John Smith caught 47,000 cod on a single trip to New England. In fact, Cape Cod itself had already been named for the ubiquitous fish.
Atlantic cod didn’t just provide sustenance, they fueled a massive commercial fishing industry that helped build New England’s economy and wealth.
In 1640, the Pilgrims sold some 300,000 dried codfish to the European market. The centuries of fishing that followed, with ever larger and more efficient modern fleets, eventually led to a collapse of the species that began in the 1980s, with some populations falling 95 percent.
Despite strict catch limits enacted over the past decade, so far, Atlantic cod stocks show little sign of returning to healthy levels, says Peter Christopher, a biologist at NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office.
Still off balance from decades of overfishing, the East Coast “doesn’t support a strong fishery, and it hasn’t for a long time,” Christopher says.
What’s more, warming water in cod strongholds, such as the Gulf of Maine, are making it harder for young fish to survive.
“You add to the fishing levels the impact of our changing climate, and things aren’t good for fish that are very used to living in a certain kind of environment,” he says.
White-tailed deer rebound after dangerous lows
In his 1621 letter, colonist Winslow placed venison squarely on the Thanksgiving table—all thanks to Wampanoag hunters skilled in stalking the herbivore.
To the Wampanoag, killing a deer meant more than provisioning a table, Coombs says. “We respect all forms of life, including animal life,” he said. “When you have to take a life of a deer, we do a ceremony thanking that deer who gave up his life for you.”
White-tailed deer were such a vital food source in the early colonies that it wasn’t long before they became scarce. In 1646, Portsmouth, Rhode Island enacted one of the New World’s first game laws, ending open season on deer hunting.
The deer’s decline intensified over the next two centuries, compounded by widespread deforestation. By 1890, the U.S. Biological Survey, a precursor to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimated that only 300,000 white-tailed deer survived in the entire United States, with as few as a thousand left in Massachusetts.
The deer’s fortunes turned with the 20th century. The Lacey Act of 1900 curbed the market for commercial deer hunting by prohibiting the shipment of game from state to state. Forests were replanted, and conservation efforts protected rebounding deer populations.
Today, thanks to such efforts and an absence of large predators, white-tailed deer are once again common across most of the United States, numbering some 30 million nationwide.
In fact, they’ve become so common that their voracious browsing is dramatically reshaping forests. Deer devour shrubs, saplings, seedlings, and acorns, which stops forests from regenerating and robs many other species of food and shelter.
From giant lobsters to an uncertain future
A place where four-foot-long American lobsters are free for the taking sounds like a paradise for many modern diners. For the Wampanoag, it was once a typical day.
“They would just pick lobsters off the beach at low tide,” says Coombs. “Lobster was kind of like how chicken is today, extremely common, and we even used it a lot for fishing bait.” (See a video of a 14-pound spiny lobster caught off Bermuda.)
Europeans were quick to take notice. In 1622, John Pory, who’d recently served as secretary to the governor of Virginia, wrote that New England’s lobsters were “so large, so full of meat, and so plentiful in number as not man will believe that hath not seen. For a price of three halfpence, I bought ten lobsters that would well have dined forty laboring men.”
Today, lobsters aren’t found wandering the beach, and truly giant specimens are few and far between. But the Gulf of Maine fishery is thriving, enjoying a lobster boom that’s driven in part by the region’s warming water. Scientists are working to predict how long it might last, and how to avoid collapses like those that have decimated the lobster fisheries south of Cape Cod.
Restoring eels to their former waterways
A Wampanoag man named Tisquantum—known to the English as Squanto—showed the Pilgrims how bountiful eels were in a Plymouth stream called Town Brook.
”They were fat and sweet; he trod them out with his feet, and so caught them with his hands without any other instrument,” Winslow wrote in Mourt’s Relation, a journal of the first year at Plymouth Colony.
The local Wampanoag still catch and eat eels today, Coombs says: “Pretty much all of the traps, nets, and other things we use today are the same things we had back then.”
The Pilgrims were familiar with European eels, and particularly enjoyed them in pies. “They talked about how good the American eels tasted,” Rudder says. “They found them great eating without the muddy taste that they had in England.”
American eels are born in a region of the Atlantic Ocean called the Sargasso Sea. Juveniles eventually make their way up rivers and streams, where they live for 20 to 30 years before returning to their marine spawning grounds. (See the eel’s epic migration mapped for the first time.)
In the 1600s, eels “were literally everywhere water has a connection to the ocean, in cranberry bogs, in wetlands,” says Hutchins, the NOAA biologist.
Yet in some New England watersheds today, habitat destruction and dam building has excluded eels and migratory fish—such as herring—from 90 percent of their former range.
Compounded by water pollution and threatened by poaching for the sushi trade, eel populations are low enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has considered listing them on the Endangered Species Act.
But conservationists are working hard to improve eel habitat—beginning in the place where their story first took a turn for the worse.
Plymouth is restoring Town Brook and its historic runs of eels and herring that sustained both Pilgrims and Wampanoag. Five dams on Town Brook have been removed to date, and biologists counted almost 45,000 eels that returned to the stream in 2020, an impressive number.
“They’ve removed more dams in Plymouth than in any town east of the Mississippi,” Hutchins says. “They were among the very first places to destroy these [freshwater] resources, and now they are taking the lead to restore them.”
It’s a turnaround, some might say, to be thankful for.