The History of The First Thanksgiving
When we think of Thanksgiving, we think of turkey and pilgrims. It is America's most beloved national holiday, but its history is all over the place. Much of the details have been argued for and second-guessed. We know that the first Thanksgiving was a multiple-day celebration that included the Wampanoag Tribe and King Massasoit. Thanks and Prayers and special Thanksgiving ceremonies are very common among most religions after harvest and other times.
In 1565, A Spanish Fleet Came Ashore
In 1565, a Spanish fleet came ashore and planted a cross on the sandy beach to christen the new settlement of St. Augustine. The eight hundred Spanish settlers shared a festive meal with the native Timucuan people.
They were celebrating the arrival and giving thanks for God's providence. "It was the first community act of religion and Thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land." ----- Michael Gannon.
An Earlier Thanksgiving Celebration Took Place In Virginia In 1619
In 1619, an earlier Thanksgiving celebration took place in Virginia and was organized by English settlers. The settlers had arrived at Berkeley Hundred on board the ship Margaret, which had sailed from Bristol, England.
It is a less widely known Thanksgiving celebration. The ship was captained by John Woodcliffe. However, it is not considered the first Thanksgiving.
The First Permanent Settlement Of Jamestown, Virginia Held A Thanksgiving In 1610
From 1609-1610, conditions were so bad for Jamestown settlers that it was called "Starving Time." The supply ships arrived at the fort in 1610, and the crew found settlers so malnourished with only sixty out of the three hundred still alive.
However, after the English supply ships arrived with food, the colonists enjoyed a Thanksgiving service, and some considered it the first Thanksgiving.
In September 1620, A Small Ship Called The Mayflower Left Plymouth, England
The small ship, the Mayflower, left Plymouth, England, in 1620 and was carrying one hundred and two passengers. The passengers were seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith, and some were lured by the promise of prosperity and land ownership in the New World.
Aboard the Mayflower were forty-one Pilgrims and sixty-one strangers. It was a rough trip as the ship was not suited for sailing against the strong Westerly winds of the North Atlantic.
A Treacherous And Uncomfortable Crossing That Lasted 66 Days
The Pilgrim's journey to Massachusetts lasted sixty-six days, and it wasn't a glorious trip. The passengers dealt with cramped quarters, rough seas, cold weather, and limited food. They suffered crippling bouts of seasickness and survived on very small rations of biscuits, dried meat, and beer.
"The boat would have been rolling like a pig. The smell and stench of illness and sickness down below, and the freezing cold on deck in the elements, it would have been pretty miserable." ----- Conrad Humphreys.
Life On The Mayflower
Life on the Gun Deck of the Mayflower was not something to be desired. The Mayflower was only about one hundred feet long from stem to stern and about twenty-four feet wide. It carried one hundred and two passengers but also a crew of thirty-seven men.
The passengers shared the gun deck with a thirty-foot sailboat called a 'shallop' that was stored below decks until they arrived in the New World. The total living space shared between the passengers was only fifty-eight by twenty-four feet. The families even put up small wooden dividers and hanging curtains for a little bit of privacy.
Protestants Arrived In Plymouth, Massachusetts, In 1620
In 1620, there was a group of Protestants who arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts. They had left their native England after their religious sect was persecuted there.
After arriving, their first winter was very challenging, but thankfully, they had help from a Native American. He happened to speak English after having been enslaved.
William Butten was a young indentured servant of Samuel Fuller, who was a longtime leader of the Leiden Church. Butten tragically died during the Mayflower voyage and was the first to die on the trip.
At that time, it was common for children and young men to be routinely rounded up from the streets of London or taken from poor families to be used as laborers in the colonies. Unfortunately, Button was sick the whole voyage, and he died at sea when the ship was near the coast of New England.
Throughout That First Brutal Winter, Most Of The Colonists Remained Onboard The Ship
Even after they reached Plymouth, Massachusetts, many of the settlers stayed on the Mayflower while ferrying back and forth to shore to build their new settlement.
They finally moved ashore permanently in March, but half of the settlers fell ill and died during that first winter. It was soon after they moved ashore that they met Squanto, who became a member of the colony.
Sadly, 78% Of The Women Died During That First Winter
Sadly, during the Pilgrims' first winter, seventy-eight percent of the women died. The Pilgrims had a very tough first winter in Plymouth, with more women dying than men or children.
There were only twenty-two men, four married women, and more than twenty-five children and teenagers. "For the English, the first Thanksgiving was also celebrating the fact that they had survived their first year here in New England." ----- Begley.
Eleanor Billington was one of the few women that survived their first winter in Plymouth. She came on the Mayflower with her husband, John Billington, and their sons, John and Francis.
Her family had a reputation for being ill-behaved, with her husband being executed for murder. Six years later, she was sentenced to sit on the stock and be whipped for slander against John Doane. She later married Gregory Armstrong.
Elizabeth Hopkins is another one of the four women who survived the first brutal women. She came on the Mayflower and was married to Stephen Hopkins.
They came with their two children, Damaris and Oceanus, with Oceanus being born on the Mayflower. Once in Plymouth, the couple went on to have five more children. Elizabeth died sometime between 1638 and 1644 in Plymouth.
Mary Brewster was one of the three women who went to Plymouth on the Mayflower and survived the brutal first winter. She was married to William Brewster, and the two had a total of six children.
Her son didn't arrive in Plymouth until 1621 on the ship Fortune, and two of her daughters came to Plymouth in 1623 on the ship Fortune as well. Before she traveled to North America, she lived for several years in the Netherlands. Sadly, she died in Plymouth Colony in 1627.
Susanna White was the fourth and final woman who arrived in Plymouth via the Mayflower ship and survived the first brutal winter. She was the wife of William White and, later, Edward Winslow.
She gave birth to her second child while aboard the Mayflower. The four surviving women, including White, Mary Brewster, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Eleanor Billington, were said to have cooked the meal for the first Thanksgiving feast.
Plymouth, Massachusetts, was the first settlement in New England, but it never developed as a successful economy like later settlements. However, agriculture, fishing, and trading made the colony self-sufficient within five years after the plantation was founded.
Massachusetts Bay Colony became the most populous and prosperous colony in the region. Plymouth's influence in New England declined and was eventually absorbed by Massachusetts in 1691.
Squanto, A Native American
Tisquantum, known as Squanto, was a member of the Patuxet tribe and was the Native American that helped the Pilgrims when they arrived in Plymouth. He played an important role in the early meetings, mainly because he could speak English.
He also lived with the Pilgrims for about twenty months, introducing them to the fur trade and teaching them how to sow and fertilize crops. His knowledge proved vital to the Pilgrims.
They Welcomed A Banner Harvest In 1621
The Pilgrims planted corn and started to fish the land that had belonged to Squanto's tribe, the Patuxet. Because of all of that, they welcomed a banner harvest in 1621. They celebrated with food, military demonstrations, and games.
"Basically, it was to celebrate the end of a successful harvest. The three-day celebration included feasting, games, and military exercises, and there was definitely an amount of diplomacy between the colonists and the native attendees as well." ----- Tom Begley.
At Least 100 People Came To The Dinner
At the first Thanksgiving, at least one hundred people came to the feast. There were at least ninety Native American men and fifty Englishmen at the feast. The Native people dined sitting on the ground, and the English people ate at the table.
It is believed that the group played marksmanship games and ran footraces in between eating. In addition, overnight guests are also a longstanding Thanksgiving tradition.
It Lasted Three Days
The Pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving at Plymouth for three days following their first harvest in 1621. The exact time of the celebration is unknown.
However, James Baker, the Plymouth Plantation vice president of research, stated, "The event occurred between September 21 and November 11, 1621, with the most likely time being around Michaelmas, the traditional time."
Food From The Wampanoag Tribe
The food at the 1621 Thanksgiving was much different than what most people serve during the holiday today. The Wampanoag brought venison and other foods from their harvest.
They brought things like beans, nuts, squash, and pumpkins. The Native Americans had killed five deer, which provided the venison, according to Edward Winslow. The Native Americans also brought chestnuts, garlic, cranberries, and more.
The Menu At The First Thanksgiving
As mentioned before, the menu for the first Thanksgiving was not what we traditionally serve today. There were a lot of fowl, including ducks, geese, swans, chickens, and pigeons. More than likely, they put the meat on a spit and roasted it over the fire.
The Pilgrims had been shown how to grow corn by the Wampanoag and as a result, there was plenty of corn at the feast. They used onions and herbs to stuff the birds and possibly even garlic and carrots. It was also believed that the settlers would have taken the carcasses of the eaten birds and boiled them to make stock for porridge.
Thanksgiving In Plymouth May Not Have Been So Cordial
Colonists and Wampanoag are typically regarded as cementing their fruitful relationship with a celebratory feast at the first Thanksgiving. However, tensions between them may have been more serious than people believe.
The Europeans behaved more like raiders than traders, and they were split by profound cultural differences. Especially in how the Wampanoag's communal sense of property over the land they conceded differed from the colonists' traditions of exclusive possession.
The First Feast Was Also About Giving Thanks
The feast and celebration in 1621 weren't actually called Thanksgiving, but the sentiment was absolutely present in that historic celebration.
"Giving thanks is really an important part of both cultures. For the English, before and after every meal, there was a prayer of Thanksgiving. For something on this scale, celebrating a successful harvest, there definitely would have been moments of giving thanks to their God." ----- Begley.
Edward Winslow arrived in Plymouth in 1620 on the Mayflower and was one of the senior leaders on the ship. He and his brother signed the Mayflower Compact, served as assistant governor, and was governor.
In addition, he was the author of many pamphlets, including Good News from New England and Mourt's Relation. Sadly, he died in 1655 of a fever while he was on an English naval expedition.
Edward Winslow's Letter
The biggest piece of knowledge from the first Thanksgiving was a diary entry by Edward Winslow. The diary entry read, "And God be praised we had a good increase. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day, killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week.
At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
King Massasoit And His 90 Men
King Massasoit was the chief of the nearby Wampanoags, and he was known for signing a treaty of alliance with the Pilgrims. He was given assistance with defense against the Narragansett tribe.
In exchange, he supplemented the food supply of the Pilgrims for the first several years. He maintained peaceful relations with English settlers in the area, and he and his men shared techniques of planting, cooking, and fishing.
In Their First Encounter, The Pilgrims Stole From The Tribe's Winter Provisions
In the Pilgrims' first encounter with the Wampanoag people, they stole from the tribe's winter provisions. The tribe watched as women and children walked from the ship, using the waters to wash themselves. The men of this new ship explored their lands, finding what remained and building homes.
They took corn and beans. "The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans." ----- Wamsutta Frank James.
It Is Unknown If There Was A Turkey On The First Thanksgiving
Today, most of us celebrate Thanksgiving with a delicious turkey, but it is unknown if they had turkey on the first Thanksgiving. Turkey was plentiful in the region and a common food source, but it is thought that it wasn't the main food for the occasion.
Most believe that other meats were served, such as "ducks, geese, and swans." Many of the other dishes that are Thanksgiving staples for us today were not served on the first Thanksgiving.
The Wampanoag Leader Brokered Peace
Massasoit was the leader of the Wampanoag tribe, and he first negotiated a treaty between the Plymouth settlers and his tribe in 1620. It included an agreement that no one from either group would harm anyone from the other.
Also that they would leave their weapons at home when trading. For roughly ten years, the two groups remained allies. However, after Massasoit died in 1661, tensions began to simmer again.
Violating A Treaty Led To Bloodshed
In 1675, three Native Americans were executed because they killed a man who had served as a translator to the settlers, which just further increased the distrust between the two groups.
It was feared that the Natives would lose more land, so they built a coalition of various Native tribes to protect themselves and their resources. The coalition members started to clash with settlers, which led to bloodshed.
The Conflict Further Devastated Native Populations
The conflict devastated Native tribes in what became known as King Philip's War. Wampanoag abducted settlers and held them for ransom, and the settlers pillaged and destroyed Native villages.
Many of the colonies were ruined and burned, taking decades to fully recover. It was reported that half of the Native Americans were killed during the war, which didn't end until Metacomet was killed.
Native People Never Really Recovered
There were many more conflicts between Native people and the colonizers, with other wars raging in Virginia, Connecticut, New York, and other areas. The Native American population never fully recovered.
The thriving societies were already living in what's now the United States when the Europeans arrived, and the settlers' arrival wasn't the beginning of a New World but the end of one. They still gather today to honor Native ancestors and the struggles they suffered.
Benjamin Franklin Wished The Turkey Was The National Bird
Benjamin Franklin wanted the turkey to be the national bird and even wrote a letter to his daughter about his wish. "For my own part, I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. For the Truth, the Turkey is, in comparison, a much more respectable Bird."
His wish was not granted, but his letter to his daughter did inspire a song performed in 1776. The song is a Tony-winning musical about the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
Pilgrims Held Their Second Thanksgiving Celebration In 1623
In 1623, the Pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration, marking the end of a long drought that had threatened the year's harvest. It prompted Governor Bradford to call for a religious fast.
Days of fasting and Thanksgiving on an annual or occasional basis became common practice in other New England settlements as well. On this occasion, they all gave thanks to God for rain after a two-month drought.
The Wampanoag Had Sought Allies
Even with their differences, the Wampanoag had an interest in cooperating with the Pilgrims leading up to Thanksgiving in 1621. The author of This Land is Their Land, Ousamequin, valued the goods that the Europeans brought.
More importantly, the potential alliance they might offer in confronting traditional enemies such as the Narragansetts to the west. As a result, Ousamequin helped the Pilgrims prevail from starvation.
17th-Century Thanksgivings Didn't Always Mark Times Of Peace
Several Thanksgiving celebrations took place in different colonies during the 17th century after the famous 1621 Plymouth celebration. However, they were not all happy gatherings. King Philip's War was waged between Indigenous people and New England colonists and their allies.
At the end of that war, an official Thanksgiving celebration was proclaimed by the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was just days after hundreds of people were killed, and shortly after, Plymouth and Massachusetts announced that they would observe August 17th as a day of Thanksgiving, thanking God for saving them from their enemies.
Originally, Thanksgiving May Not Have Been Celebrated In November At All
Originally, Thanksgiving might not have been celebrated in November, but there isn't clear historical information on the actual date.
Some historians have suggested that the first Thanksgiving may have taken place in mid-October. Later, President Lincoln assigned the holiday to fall on the last Thursday in November, which is how it has been ever since.
The Menu Included Lobster, Seal, And Swans
The menu for the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth most likely included seal, lobster, and swans. The feast lasted for three days, during which both parties brought food to the meal.
There aren't many records of the actual menu, but it is known that the Pilgrims hunted for local swans. Lobster and seal were also most likely served because they were located so close to the sea; they had plenty of oysters, shellfish, eels, fish, and lobster.
William Bradford, Plymouth's Governor In 1621
William Bradford was elected governor after the first governor perished. Under his leadership, Plymouth suffered less hardship than their English compatriots in Virginia.
Also, relations with the local natives remained relatively smooth in Plymouth, and the food supply grew more and more every year. He was governor for thirty years, a key framer of the Mayflower Compact, and is credited with drafting major parts of Plymouth's legal code.
Alexander Young Made Winslow's Letter Famous In His 1841 Book Chronicles Of The Pilgrim Fathers
Alexander Young rediscovered Winslow's letter and made it famous in his 1841 book Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. The book contains an authentic history of the Pilgrim Fathers, who planted the Colony of Plymouth in Massachusetts.
It includes a thorough history of the Pilgrim's rise in the north of England, documents Governor William Bradford's history of the Plymouth Colony, and is a collection of original documents detailing the history of the American Pilgrims and the Plymouth Plantation.
B.C.: The First Thanksgiving
There was also an animated special called B.C.: The First Thanksgiving. It is a Thanksgiving special based on a comic strip of the same name. The television show debuted on November 19, 1973.
It is about a woman wanting to add flavor to her rock soup, and she commands Wiley, Peter, and Thor to catch a turkey. However, no one knows what a turkey is, except for the turkey himself. The voice actors are Bob Holt, Daws Butler, Don Messick, and Joanie Sommers.
Saints & Strangers Film
Saints & Strangers is a four-hour movie that premiered in a two-night event. It is said to be the "real true story of the Mayflower passengers, the founding of Plymouth, and their relationship with the Native Americans." It was produced by Sony Pictures Television and first aired on November 22nd and 23rd. The film stars Jesse Bowman Bruchac, who is a Western Abenaki language coach.
"Every line in the movie, whether from Pilgrims or Native Americans, has a real, true connection to what was happening in that period. There is an attention to detail in this movie that has never before been brought forward." ----- Jesse Bowman Bruchac.
America's Real First Thanksgiving - By Robyn Gioia
The children's book America's Real First Thanksgiving was written by Robyn Gioia. Robyn teaches full-time and is active in children's literature. She is also a former board member of the Florida Writers Association and has judged several national contests. In addition, she is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Her story gives a delightful view of the first Thanksgiving, the one that was celebrated in Florida by Spaniards and Timucuans.
"Good research book for a 10 yr old. Quick delivery. Son needed this for a school report, excellent choice. Easily understood with nice illustrations. It also provides a different bit of history (as the title of the book)." ----- S. K. Lovett.
1621: A New Look At Thanksgiving (National Geographic)
Another special was written for National Geographic and titled 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving. It is a traditional story of the first Thanksgiving. It is a lushly illustrated photo essay that presents a more measured, balanced, and historically accurate version of the three-day harvest celebration in 1621. It was written by Catherine O'Neill Grace and Margaret M. Bruchac., and the book is full of photographs and illustrations.
"I love this book! It gives the perspective of both the English and the Wampanoag and tells what ACTUALLY happened during that first harvest celebration! My mind was blown by what I learned while teaching my kids and reading this book (NOT what I was taught in school!). The pictures are living scenes from the Plimoth Plantation by interpreters. There are even a couple of recipes of both Wampanoag and English dishes that may have been eaten at the 3-day celebration. I highly recommend this title to decolonize your bookshelf, classroom, and history!" ----- Beth J.
The First Thanksgiving Feast - By Joan Wilkins Anderson
Joan Wilkins Anderson's memoir is titled The First Thanksgiving Feast and it was adapted for the big screen and was filmed in Cape Cod in April 2015. Anderson is a journalist and New York Times bestselling author of A Year by the Sea.
She has also written An Unfinished Marriage, A Weekend to Change Your Life, A Walk on the Beach, and Second Journey. The memoir recreated in accurate detail one of the most popular events in American history, with photographs taken at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. "I try to get books for each holiday, especially books that explain the reason for the holiday. This is excellent for family reading and understanding." ----- G. Schmidt.
George Soule was a colonist and an indentured servant on the Mayflower. He helped establish Plymouth Colony in 1620 and was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. He was a servant to the Edward Winslow family and later was a deputy to the Plymouth Court for several years.
In 1637, he volunteered for the Pequot War and was on many committees, juries, and survey teams. He was married to Mary Buckett, and he had a total of nine children.
President Lincoln Declared It A National Holiday In 1863
Thanksgiving became an actual public holiday in the United States in 1789 after the Federal Congress passed a resolution requesting that the President of the U.S. identify a day of Thanksgiving. However, the dates were consistently changing with each president.
Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November would officially be named Thanksgiving Day. He asserted the day's prominence during the American Civil War.
Plymouth Rock Is Located In Pilgrim Memorial State Park
Today, Plymouth Rock is located in Pilgrim Memorial State Park, and the park is designed around the rock. The Plymouth Rock is a large glacial boulder deposited in the harbor and has been smoothed by centuries of tidal wash.
It is a landmark and a symbol of the courage and faith of the men and women who founded the first New England colony. It is a picturesque landscaped park that is visited by nearly one million people every year.
The Plimoth Patuxet Museums
The original colony of Plymouth is a living museum and a recreation of the original seventeenth-century village. You can visit and taste colonial food, see a restored Mayflower II and even attend reenactments of the first Thanksgiving when the Wampanoags joined the settlers to celebrate the autumn harvest.
The museum was founded in 1947, and it is a not-for-profit museum. The recreations are based on first and second-hand records, accounts, articles, paintings, and artifacts.