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The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving: English Settlers and Wampanoag Natives Meet in 1621

Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays. It is a time of family gatherings, and eating such foods as turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. Thanksgiving commemorates a feast held by early English “Pilgrims” in Plymouth colony, New England, in 1621. Such a feast did take place, but it was very different from the traditional myth

Did the “Pilgrims” Really Celebrate Thanksgiving?

The English settlers that popular myth now calls “pilgrims” were religious radicals, dissenters from the established Church of England. Sometimes they were called Separatists, and like the Puritans they took religion seriously. To a separatist/pilgrim, “Thanksgiving” was not a time of feasting or games. Rather, it was a solemn day of prayer and “humiliation,” a time to reflect on God’s mercies and one’s own sins and shortcomings. When a “Thanksgiving day” was declared there was little joy.

But the Pilgrims were still English, and when they founded Plimoth Plantation (now Plymouth, Massachusetts) in 1620, they still wanted to carry on the customs they knew in the old country. A harvest home festival was one of them. Our modern Thanksgiving has roots in the harvest festival.

The Pilgrim’s First Year in the New World

The story of the Pilgrim’s voyage and first months in America has been taught to schoolchildren for generations, The winter of 1620-21 was relatively mild for New England, but still about half the colonists died. After that, things improved. The Pilgrims planted crops, aided by local Native Americans from the Wampanoag people.

The newcomers had limited success with wheat and barley, but their corn crop grew well, thanks in part to the Native American Squanto (Tisquantum) who tough them how to plant corn seeds in little hillocks and fertilize it with fish.

The “First Thanksgiving” in the Fall of 1621

Historians do not know the exact date of the harvest home festival, although most agree it was in October of 1621. There are only two primary sources for the event, one being reference in a letter by settler Edward Winslow. But perhaps the most famous account is from William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford, like Winslow, was a prominent member of the community.

First Thanksgiving Foods

To prepare for the feast four men were sent out to kill “fowl,” that is ducks and geese. It was the time of the fall migrations, and they were abundant. Bradford recalls that “Others went fishing,” and gathered “cod and bass and other fish.” Venison (deer meat) was also on hand. Was turkey on the menu? Modern traditionalists can be relieved to know there was. Bradford says “there was a great store of turkey, of which they took many.” But these were wild birds, smaller and more wily than our modern domesticated varieties. Breads were skillet breads cooked by the fire, or perhaps risen breads baked in a clay oven.

Foods Not On the Thanksgiving Menu

The English settlers were new to their surroundings, and didn’t have the time to import or raise some of the food items they had known back in England. Apples, pears, and other fruits are not native to New England and would take years to bear after planting. Cranberries might have been used in puddings, but not in the modern jellied form, for lack of sugar.

The Native Americans and the First Thanksgiving

The harvest home lasted three days, a time of eating, drinking, and games. Chief Massasoit and ninety Native American Wampanoags showed up for the festivities. Massasoit wanted to contribute his share to the food that was being eaten, so an Indian hunting party was dispatched. Within a short time they came back with five deer.

The pilgrims thought of Massasoit as a “great king” of the Wampanoag. He was indeed a leader, but only of the Pokanoket village. Nevertheless, Native Americans and English seem to have had a good time. Both sides still distrusted the other, and relations were cordial if not overly warm. During the three days Pokanoket men showed their skill target shooting with bow and arrow. In response Englishmen shot at targets with their cumbersome matchlock muskets.

Legacy of the First Thanksgiving

By the twentieth century Thanksgiving was well established as a national holiday, its origins shrouded in romantic myth. The peace that the Pilgrims and Native Americans established in those early times lasted only 50 years. Shorn of the myth, the First Thanksgiving should still be celebrated and remembered as a special time. For one brief moment, two peoples completely different in language, race, and culture came together in peace, celebrating their common humanity.

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