The Story of the “First Thanksgiving”


The image above is one of the most famous representations of the “First Thanksgiving” celebrated by the Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621. Painted in 1932 by J.L.G. Ferris it reinforces and solidifies a colonized perspective of the past rife with inaccuracies and stereotypes. Much of what students are taught in school about the “First Thanksgiving” is oversimplified, glossed over, or simply made up. Everything from date to the menu is very different from what many people believe. Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln who wished to create a sense of American unity during the Civil War. Prior to this many cities and states celebrated a time of “thanksgiving” associated with the fall harvest and it began as a religious celebration rather than the secular holiday that exists today.  The legend of the “Pilgrims and Indians,” although partially based in truth, wouldn’t be attached to the holiday until many years after it was declared a national holiday. 

The contemporary story of thanksgiving is familiar to just about everyone in America and a brief summary goes something like this: The pilgrims flee Europe to escape religious persecution, and are welcomed into the new world by Squanto and the Wampanoag people. After Squanto taught the settlers how to hunt and farm in this new land both groups sat down together for a feast in order to give thanks. The true history of the Pilgrims colonization of New England and their interactions with indigenous people is far more complex.

The Pilgrims never actually called themselves pilgrims, and that term wasn’t used to refer to them until the late 1800’s. They were Puritan Separatists, a sect of Christianity that wished to separate entirely from the Catholic Church and establish a more “pure” form of worship with a stricter interpretation of the bible. They did not flee Europe to escape religious persecution, in fact at the time the Mayflower set sail the Pilgrims had been living in Holland where they had the freedom to practice their religion. They actually travelled to the new world in search of economic opportunity, and so that they could establish a religious theocracy. When they arrived in the “New World” they discovered fields that appeared to have been cleared and plowed and tracks through the woods that looked like roads. They believed that this was a sign that God had prepared this land for them so that they might establish a “shining city on a hill” in his name.

In reality the fields and roads were not cleared by divine intervention but rather by the indigenous people who had been living and farming in New England for thousands of years before the Pilgrims arrived. The earliest explorers and settlers that came to America brought with them diseases like smallpox which spread like wildfire and decimated the Native American population. The Patuxet people had lived on the land where the Pilgrims settled. Tisquantum, known today as Squanto, was a member of this band of people. Tisquantum was actually captured by the English in 1614 and sold into slavery. He learned to speak english while living in England for several years. When he finally returned home in 1619 he discovered that his entire tribe had been wiped out by smallpox and he was taken in by the nearby Wampanoag.

The Mayflower landed in New England in November, far too late for them to plant or harvest any crops. As a result their first winter was very difficult and over half of them had perished by springtime. Members of the Wampanoag tribe, with Tisquantum serving as translator, began assisting the Pilgrims in the spring of 1621 and introduced them to native crops like corn, beans, and squash as well as showing them the best places to hunt and fish. They also taught the pilgrims different methods and techniques to help crops grow better in the New England soil. In the summer the leader of the Wampanoag, Massasoit, signed a treaty with the Pilgrims offering them food in exchange for assistance in protecting themselves from other, hostile tribes. The Pilgrims experienced a bountiful harvest in the fall and celebrated with a multi-day harvest festival. Harvest Festivals were common around the world and would have been celebrated in North America long before the Pilgrims arrived. This harvest festival is what would become known as the “First Thanksgiving.” It is unclear from historical documents and oral traditions whether or not the Wampanoag were formally invited to the celebration. If not invited they may have seen the celebration from their land on the other side of the river and gone to investigate, or may have been passing through on a diplomatic mission. This harvest festival probably occurred in late September or early October, and not in November when it is celebrated today, and would have lasted for several days. The menu was also very different from what is eaten at modern Thanksgiving celebrations.

Dishes like turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pie have become ubiquitous on thanksgiving dinner tables today. The real food eaten by the Pilgrims and Native Americans at the 1621 harvest festival included none of these, with the possible exception of turkey. A letter written in December of 1621 by Edward Winslow describes the feast.

“Our corn [i.e. wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. 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. “

This places on the menu corn, barley, fowl(likely ducks and geese), and venison. Common staples eaten by both the Pilgrims and Native Americans included fish and shellfish, nuts, beans, squash, and wild fruits. Some or all of these foods were probably consumed at the harvest festival. Vegetables and spices brought over by the colonists, such as carrots and onions, may have also been eaten. One glaring omission from the menu is turkey, which is now the main course on any thanksgiving table. The only reference to turkey being eaten at the first thanksgiving comes from the History of Plymouth Plantation. This book was written by Governor William Bradford but not until 20 years after the event occurred. Turkey may have been consumed but geese and duck are more likely to have been the birds of choice. The settlers also lacked ingredients like flour, sugar, and butter and the colony didn’t have an at the time so baked goods like pies would not have been eaten. Cattle and swine wouldn’t reach the colony until supply ships arrived a few years later so beef, pork, and dairy products were also unavailable. Potatoes had only recently been introduced to Europe and were not brought to New England with the Pilgrims.

Unfortunately, peaceful relationships between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims wouldn’t last long. There wasn’t a “Second thanksgiving.” Annual harvest festivals weren’t formally celebrated in New England until a few decades later, and days of Thanksgiving could be declared throughout the year by the Governor in order to celebrate important events. Over the next several years more ships arrived in New England bringing with them thousands of settlers. The increasing size of the colonies demanded more and more resources and they began to force the Native tribes that had once helped them off of their land. Relationships between the two groups continued to grow more and more tense, and occasionally violence and attacks broke out on both sides. In 1675 war broke out. King Phillip’s war was named for the Wampanoag chief Metacomet who adopted the English name Phillip in honor of the friendly relationship between the pilgrims and his father Massasoit. The war was very short but caused much damage and death on both sides. The conflict was, relative to the population size, one of the deadliest conflicts in early American history. Many colonial towns were destroyed and the economy was severely damaged but eventually the colonists emerged victorious. With the Colonial victory many of the once great tribes of New England were severely weakened and some of the smaller groups ceased to exist as organized bands. Many groups had to move, consolidate with other tribes, or assimilate into colonial society to survive. This was an early event in the long and tragic history of the injustices suffered by Indigenous people at the hands of colonial powers. Fortunately the Indigenous people of New England were resilient and many tribal communities still exist in the region to this day. Enjoy Thanksgiving as a time to gather with family and friends to share food and company, but don’t forget the real story of struggle, hardship, and cooperation that inspired the legend.  



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Salam, Maya. “Most Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong.” The New York Times. November 21, 2017. Accessed November 22, 2017.

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Warren, Jason W. “King Philip’s War.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 28, 2016. Accessed November 22, 2017.