The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving



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The First Thanksgiving

The early settlers of America, who braved the privations of those incredibly difficult years, were a fabulous lot, indeed. We can hardly imagine the burdens they endured to make a new life for themselves in a new land. Their turning point began one Friday in the middle of March,1621.

An Indian, wearing nothing but a leather loincloth, strode up their main street to the common house, and to their startled faces boomed in flawless English, "Welcome."

His name was Samoset, a sagamore (or chief) of the Algonquins. He had been visiting the area for the previous eight months, having learned his English from various fishing captains who had put in to the Maine shore over the years.

He returned the following Thursday with another Indian who also spoke English, and who was to prove "a special instrument of God for their good, beyond their expectation." His story was to prove no less extraordinary than the saga of Joseph being sold into slavery to Egypt. His name was Tisquantum, also called Squanto.

His story began in 1605 when Squanto and four other Indians were taken captive, sent to England,and taught English to provide intelligence background on the most favorable places to establish colonies. After nine years in England, Squanto was able to return to Plymouth on Capt. John Smith's voyage in 1614.

Lured and captured by a notorious Capt. Thomas Hunt, he, with 27 others, were taken to Mlaga, Spain, a major slave-trading port. Squanto, with a few others, were bought and rescued by local friars and introduced to the Christian faith. Thus, it appears that God was preparing him for the role he would ultimately play at Plymouth.

He was able to attach himself to an Englishman bound for London, then he joined the family of a wealthy merchant, and ultimately embarked for New England in 1619. He stepped ashore six months before the Pilgrims landed in 1620. 1

When he stepped ashore he received the most tragic blow of his life. Not a man, woman, or child of his own tribe was left alive! During the previous four years, a mysterious plague had broken out among them, killing every last one. 2 So complete was the devastation that the neighboring tribes had shunned the area ever since. The Pilgrims had settled in a cleared area that belonged to no one. Their nearest neighbors, the Wampanoags, were about 50 miles to the southwest.

Stripped of his identity and his reason for living, Squanto wandered aimlessly until he joined the Wampanoags, having nowhere else to go. But God had other plans.

Massasoit, the sachem (or chief) of the Wapanoags, entered into a peace treaty of mutual aid with the Plymouth colony that was to last as a model for forty years. When Massasoit and his entourage left, Squanto stayed. He had found his reason for living: these English were helpless in the ways of the wilderness. Squanto taught them how to catch eels, stalk deer, plant pumpkins, refine maple syrup, discern both edible herbs and those good for medicine, etc.

Perhaps the most important thing he taught them was the Indian way to plant corn. They hoed six-foot squares in toward the center, putting down four or five kernels, and then fertilizing the corn with fish: three fish in each square, pointing to the center, spokelike. Guarding the field against the wolves (who would try to steal the fish), by summer they had 20 full acres of corn that would save every one of their lives.

Squanto also taught them to exploit the pelts of the beaver, which was in plentiful supply and in great demand throughout Europe. He even guided the trading to insure they got full prices for top-quality pelts. The corn was their physical deliverance the beaver pelts would be their economic deliverance.

The Pilgrims were a grateful people-grateful to God, grateful to the Wamp-anoags, and grateful also to Squanto. Governor Bradford declared a day of public Thanksgiving, to be held in October.

Massasoit was invited and unexpectedly arrived a day early-with an additional ninety Indians! To feed such a crowd would cut deeply into their stores for the winter, but they had learned through all their travails that God could be trusted implicitly.

And it turned out that the Indians did not come empty handed: they brought five dressed deer and more than a dozen fat wild turkeys. They helped with the preparations, teaching the Pilgrim women how to make hoecakes and a tasty pudding out of cornmeal and maple syrup. In fact, they also showed them how to make one of their Indian favorites: white, fluffy popcorn! (Each time you go to a movie theatre, you should remember the source of this popular treat!)

The Pilgrims, in turn, provided many vegetables from their gardens: carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips, cucumbers, radishes, beets, and cabbages. Also, using some of their precious flour with some of the summer fruits which the Indians had dried, the Pilgrims introduced them to blueberry, apple, and cherry pie. Along with sweet wine made from wild grapes, it was, indeed, a joyous occasion for all concerned.

The Pilgrims and Indians happily competed in shooting contests, foot races, and wrestling. Things went so well (and Massasoit showed no inclination to leave) that this first Thanksgiving was extended for three days.

The moment that stood out the most in the Pilgrims' memories was William Brewster's prayer as they began the festival. They had so much for which to thank God: for providing all their needs-and His provision of Squanto, their teacher, guide, and friend that was to see them through those critical early winters.

By the end of the 19th century, Thanksgiving Day had become an institution throughout New England. It was officially proclaimed as a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Traditionally celebrated on the last Thursday in November, it was changed by an act of Congress in 1941 to the fourth Thursday of that month. 3

Originally observed to acknowledge the provision of God, let us also make this national holiday a very special time to thank Him for our own provision-our families, our sustenance, and, above all, our redemption in His Son!

Let's also pray that He might restore the religious freedom that those early Pilgrims cherished so dearly-and that the current enforced paganism that has invaded our land be curtailed. This country is now becoming what the Pilgrims had risked their very lives to flee from.

Much of this article was excerpted from The Light and the Glory, Peter Marshall and David Manuel, Fleming H. Revell Co., Old Tappan, NJ, 1977. For a thrilling and inspiring account of the incredible measures God provided for in the founding of our once-great country, this book is a "must read."

  1. The Pilgrims lived that first winter aboard ship and suffered the loss of 47 colonists.
  2. This epidemic, from 1615 to 1617, is believed to have killed 95,000 Indians, leaving only about 5,000 along the coast.
  3. Canada first adopted Thanksgiving as a national holiday in November 1879, and it is now celebrated there annually on the second Monday in October.

This article was originally published in the
November 1997 Personal Update News Journal.

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PLEASE NOTE: Unless otherwise expressly stated, pricing and offers mentioned in these articles are only valid for up to 30 days from initial publication date and may be subject to change.

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3b. William Bradford and the First Thanksgiving

The major similarity between the first Jamestown settlers and the first Plymouth settlers was great human suffering.

November was too late to plant crops. Many settlers died of scurvy and malnutrition during that horrible first winter. Of the 102 original Mayflower passengers, only 44 survived. Again like in Jamestown, the kindness of the local Native Americans saved them from a frosty death.

The Pilgrims' remarkable courage was displayed the following spring. When the Mayflower returned to Europe, not a single Pilgrim deserted Plymouth.

Helping Hands


Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe, signed a treaty with the Pilgrams in 1621, that was never broken. As a result, the two groups enjoyed a peaceful coexistence.

By early 1621, the Pilgrims had built crude huts and a common house on the shores of Plymouth Bay. Soon neighboring Indians began to build relations with the Pilgrims. Squanto , a local Indian who had been kidnapped and taken to England nearly a decade before, served as an interpreter with the local tribes. Squanto taught the Pilgrims to fertilize the soil with dried fish remains to produce a stellar corn crop.

Massasoit , the chief of the nearby Wampanoags, signed a treaty of alliance with the Pilgrims in the summer. In exchange for assistance with defense against the feared Narragansett tribe, Massasoit supplemented the food supply of the Pilgrims for the first few years.

Governor Bradford


The modern conception of a Pilgrim might include a man in a black hat with a buckle, but not all of the original settlers of Plymouth County fit this description.

Successful colonies require successful leadership. The man to step forward in Plymouth colony was William Bradford . After the first governor elected under the Mayflower Compact perished from the harsh winter, Bradford was elected governor for the next thirty years. In May of 1621, he performed the colony's first marriage ceremony.

Under Bradford's guidance, Plymouth suffered less hardship than their English compatriots in Virginia. Relations with the local natives remained relatively smooth in Plymouth and the food supply grew with each passing year.

By autumn of 1621, the Pilgrims had much for which to be thankful. After the harvest, Massasoit and about ninety other Indians joined the Pilgrims for the great English tradition of Harvest Festival . The participants celebrated for several days, dining on venison, goose, duck, turkey, fish, and of course, cornbread, the result of a bountiful corn harvest. This tradition was repeated at harvest time in the following years.

It was President Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving a national celebration in 1863. The Plymouth Pilgrims simply celebrated survival, as well as the hopes of good fortune in the years that lay ahead.


The Truth About Thanksgiving: What They Never Taught You in School

Remember what you were taught in grade school? Fleeing religious persecution, the Pilgrims sailed from England, landed on Plymouth rock over two months later, barely survived their first winter. With the help of Squanto and the friendly Wampanoag, who taught them how to exploit the local fish and game, plant corn and squash, and also protected them from other hostile tribes, the band of colonists succeeded in establishing a tenuous foothold at the edge of the North American wilderness. The first Thanksgiving in 1621 was held to celebrate a bountiful harvest with the tribe that helped make it possible.

The real story, it turns out, is neither as simple nor as consoling as this pared down history would suggest. Not that the historians agree on what the real Thanksgiving story is. And it isn't just historians who are squabbling over the significance of America's feast day. It is ordinary Americans like-- well-- Rush Limbaugh for example, who are weighing in on the events of four hundred years ago.

They did sit down and have free-range turkey and organic vegetables, Rush allows, "but it was not the Indians. it was capitalism and Scripture which saved the day." And it wasn't just a bitter winter and shortage of food that imperiled Pilgrim survival it was, you guessed it, socialism, and those commune dwelling hippie Pilgrims themselves.

The popular talk radio host blames the Pilgrim's communal work ethic and equal sharing of the fruits of their labors for the colony's rocky first year in which half of the one hundred settlers perished of starvation and disease--

"The most creative and industrious people had no incentive to work any harder than anyone else, unless they could utilize the power of personal motivation!"

The tide turned, according to Rush, when the colony's governor, William Bradford, assigned a private plot of land to each family, thereby setting loose the beneficent powers of the marketplace in the People's Republic of Plymouth Rock.

This revisionist history is greeted with bemusement by professional historians. But Limbaugh is not alone in using Thanksgiving to score some political points. While Thanksgiving's enthusiasts view it as a celebration of the boldness, piety and sacrifices of the first European migrants to American shores, the holiday's critics claim that it whitewashes the genocide and ethnic cleansing of indigenous people.

If you happen to spend Thanksgiving in Plymouth Massachusetts this year, you can choose between two public commemorations. You can watch the official parade, in which townspeople dressed like pilgrims march to Plymouth Rock bearing blunderbusses and beating drums. Or you can stand on the top of Coles Hill with indigenous people and their supporters and fast in observance of what they call a "national day of mourning" in remembrance of the destruction of Indian culture and peoples.

These two events represent radically different visions of American history. The official version, the one we learn in school, essentially starts with the landing of the Mayflower in 1620 in a small bay north of Cape Cod. In the Native version, on the other hand, the appearance of the Pilgrims on American shores marks the beginning of the end.

In fact, the end times began for Massachusetts Indians several years earlier, when British slaving crews inadvertently introduced smallpox-- carried by their infected cattle-- to coastal New England killing over ninety percent of the local population, who lacked antibodies to fight the disease. (Compare this astonishing figure to the 30 percent death rates at the height of the Black Plague.)

While the decimated Wampanoag helped the British boat people survive their first harrowing year, Native Americans say that the favor was not returned. A group which calls itself "The United American Indians of New England" alleges that in return for Indian generosity, Pilgrims stole their grain stores and robbed Wampanoag graves.

The historical evidence for grave robbing is a bit thin. And perhaps we can forgive the starving Pilgrims for pilfering a little Indian corn. In any event, this petty thieving doubtless ended with their first ample harvest, which was celebrated with a three day feast. It remains an open question, however, whether the Wampanoag were actually invited, or if they crashed the party, as some historians now suggest, when they heard gunfire from the stockaded village and came to check out what the commotion was all about.

There is also the much debated question of what was on the menu. There is no evidence for turkey, it turns out, only some kind of wild fowl-- likely geese and duck-- venison, corn mush and stewed pumpkin, or traditional Wampanoag succotash. Cranberries, though native to the region, would have been too tart for desert, and sweet potatoes were not yet grown in North America, though grapes and melons would have been available.

The notion that the first Thanksgiving was some kind of cross-cultural love-fest, as it has been portrayed, is also disputed by historians, who say that the settlers and the Indians were brought together less by genuine friendship than by the extremity of their mutual need. The two struggling communities were never more than wary allies against other tribes.

The colonists were contemptuous of the Indians, who they regarded as uncivilized and satanic heathens, and the fragile early peace between Native Americans and the early settlers would soon unravel in a horrific manner in what is now Mystic Connecticut, where the Pequot tribe was celebrating their own Thanksgiving, the green corn festival. In the predawn hours, settlers-- not the Pilgrims, but a band of Puritans-- descended on their village and shot, clubbed and burned alive over 700 native men, woman and children.

This slaughter, according to Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was the real origin of Thanksgiving-- so proclaimed in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Governor John Winthrop in gratitude for God's destruction of the defenseless Pequot village. Thereafter massacres of the Indians were routinely followed by "days of thanksgiving."

Some blogosphere historians have gone so far as to claim that it was in order to consolidate this plethora of macabre feasts that George Washington made his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation in 1789. In reality, our first president's aim was not to celebrate the genocide against the Indians, but to pay tribute to the survival of the fledgling but still imperiled nation. Nevertheless, troubling questions about the origins of our national feast remain.

Jane Kamensky, a professor of history at Brandeis University, wondered on the website Common-Place (in 2001) whether it makes sense to stir up the historical pot, "to plumb the bottom of it all - to determine whether the first Thanksgiving was merely a pretext for bloodshed, enslavement, and displacement that would follow in later decades."

"To ask whether this is true is to ask the wrong question. Thanksgiving is true to its purposes," Kamensky writes, "And that's all it needs to be. For these holidays say much less about who we really were in some specific Then, than about who we want to be in an ever changing Now."

It seems odd for a historian to argue that history doesn't matter. A Thanksgiving which ignores the systematic destruction of Indian cultures which followed hot on the heels of the Plymouth feast not only does a disservice to indigenous peoples, it falsifies our understanding of ourselves and our history.

While few would suggest that Thanksgiving should become the occasion for a yearly guilt trip, we would do well to remember the price the first Americans paid for European expansion into their territories as we sit around the bountiful table with our family and friends. Only by openly acknowledging the sins of our collective past, is it possible to proceed toward a future that all Americans can feel thankful for.


When did America first call for a national Thanksgiving?

America first called for a national day of thanksgiving to celebrate victory over the British in the Battle of Saratoga. In 1789, George Washington again called for national day of thanks on the last Thursday of November to commemorate the end of the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution. And during the Civil War, both the Confederacy and the Union issued Thanksgiving Day proclamations following major victories.


The Horrible History of Thanksgiving

Before you fill your plate, please remember why we mark this day.

When I was a child, Thanksgiving was simple. It was about turkey and dressing, love and laughter, a time for the family to gather around a feast and be thankful for the year that had passed and be hopeful for the year to come.

In school, the story we learned was simple, too: Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to give thanks.

We made pictures of the gathering, everyone smiling. We colored turkeys or made them out of construction paper. We sometimes had a mini-feast in class.

I thought it was such a beautiful story: People reaching across race and culture to share with one another, to commune with one another. But that is not the full story of Thanksgiving. Like so much of American history, the story has had its least attractive features winnow away — white people have been centered in the narrative and all atrocity has been politely papered over.

What is widely viewed as the first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast to which the Pilgrims had invited the local Wampanoag people as a celebration of the harvest.

About 90 came, almost twice the number of Pilgrims. This is the first myth: that the first Thanksgiving was dominated by the Pilgrim and not the Native American. The Native Americans even provided the bulk of the food, according to the Manataka American Indian Council.

This is counter to the Pilgrim-centric view so often presented. Indeed, two of the most famous paintings depicting the first Thanksgiving — one by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe and the other by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris — feature the natives in a subservient position, outnumbered and crouching on the ground on the edge of the frame.

The Pilgrims had been desperate and sick and dying but had finally had some luck with crops.

The second myth is that the Wampanoag were feasting with friends. That does not appear to be true.

As Peter C. Mancall, a professor at the University of Southern California, wrote for CNN on Wednesday, Gov. William Bradford would say in his book “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which he began to write in 1630, that the Puritans had arrived in “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.”

Mancall further explained that after the visits to the New World by Samuel de Champlain and Capt. John Smith in the early 1600s, “a terrible illness spread through the region” among the Native Americans. He continued: “Modern scholars have argued that indigenous communities were devastated by leptospirosis, a disease caused by Old World bacteria that had likely reached New England through the feces of rats that arrived on European ships.”

This weakening of the native population by disease from the new arrivals’ ships created an opening for the Pilgrims.

King James’s patent called this spread of disease “a wonderfull Plague” that might help to devastate and depopulate the region. Some friends.

But many of those native people not killed by disease would be killed by direct deed.

As Grace Donnelly wrote in a 2017 piece for Fortune:

The celebration in 1621 did not mark a friendly turning point and did not become an annual event. Relations between the Wampanoag and the settlers deteriorated, leading to the Pequot War. In 1637, in retaliation for the murder of a man the settlers believed the Wampanoags killed, they burned a nearby village, killing as many as 500 men, women, and children. Following the massacre, William Bradford, the Governor of Plymouth, wrote that for “the next 100 years, every Thanksgiving Day ordained by a Governor was in honor of the bloody victory, thanking God that the battle had been won.”

Just 16 years after the Wampanoag shared that meal, they were massacred.

This was just one of the earliest episodes in which settlers and colonists did something horrible to the natives. There would be other massacres and many wars.

According to History.com, “From the time Europeans arrived on American shores, the frontier — the edge territory between white man’s civilization and the untamed natural world — became a shared space of vast, clashing differences that led the U.S. government to authorize over 1,500 wars, attacks and raids on Indians, the most of any country in the world against its indigenous people.”

And this says nothing of all the treaties brokered and then broken or all the grabbing of land removing populations, including the most famous removal of natives: the Trail of Tears. Beginning in 1831, tens of thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate from their ancestral lands in the Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi River. Many died along the way.

I spent most of my life believing a gauzy, kindergarten version of Thanksgiving, thinking only of feasts and family, turkey and dressing.

I was blind, willfully ignorant, I suppose, to the bloodier side of the Thanksgiving story, to the more honest side of it.

But I’ve come to believe that is how America would have it if it had its druthers: We would be blissfully blind, living in a soft world bleached of hard truth. I can no longer abide that.


More Notes on Thanksgiving

1. The Puritans were not just simple religious conservatives persecuted by the King and the Church of England for their unorthodox beliefs. They were political revolutionaries who not only intended to overthrow the government of England, but who actually did so in 1649.

2. The Puritan &ldquoPilgrims&rdquo who came to New England were not simply refugees who decided to &ldquoput their fate in God&rsquos hands&rdquo in the &ldquoempty wilderness&rdquo of North America, as a generation of Hollywood movies taught us. In any culture at any time, settlers on a frontier are most often outcasts and fugitives who, in some way or other, do not fit into the mainstream of their society. This is not to imply that people who settle on frontiers have no redeeming qualities such as bravery, etc., but that the images of nobility that we associate with the Puritans are at least in part the good &ldquoP.R.&rdquo efforts of later writers who have romanticized them.

It is also very plausible that this unnaturally noble image of the Puritans is all wrapped up with the mythology of &ldquoNoble Civilization&rdquo vs. &ldquoSavagery.&rdquo At any rate, mainstream Englishmen considered the Pilgrims to be deliberate religious dropouts who intended to found a new nation completely independent from non-Puritan England. In 1643 the Puritan/Pilgrims declared themselves an independent confederacy, one hundred and forty-three years before the American Revolution. They believed in the imminent occurrence of Armegeddon in Europe and hoped to establish here in the new world the &ldquoKingdom of God&rdquo foretold in the book of Revelation. They diverged from their Puritan brethren who remained in England only in that they held little real hope of ever being able to successfully overthrow the King and Parliament and, thereby, impose their &ldquoRule of Saints&rdquo (strict Puritan orthodoxy) on the rest of the British people. So they came to America not just in one ship (the Mayflower) but in a hundred others as well, with every intention of taking the land away from its native people to build their prophesied &ldquoHoly Kingdom.&rdquo

3. The Pilgrims were not just innocent refugees from religious persecution. They were victims of bigotry in England, but some of them were themselves religious bigots by our modern standards. The Puritans and the Pilgrims saw themselves as the &ldquoChosen Elect&rdquo mentioned in the book of Revelation. They strove to &ldquopurify&rdquo first themselves and then everyone else of everything they did not accept in their own interpretation of scripture. Later New England Puritans used any means, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war, and genocide to achieve that end. They saw themselves as fighting a holy war against Satan, and everyone who disagreed with them was the enemy. This rigid fundamentalism was transmitted to America by the Plymouth colonists, and it sheds a very different light on the &ldquoPilgrim&rdquo image we have of them. This is best illustrated in the written text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by &ldquoMather the Elder.&rdquo In it, Mather the Elder gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying &ldquochiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth&rdquo, i.e., the Pilgrims. In as much as these Indians were the Pilgrim&rsquos benefactors, and Squanto, in particular, was the instrument of their salvation that first year, how are we to interpret this apparent callousness towards their misfortune?

4. The Wampanoag Indians were not the &ldquofriendly savages&rdquo some of us were told about when we were in the primary grades. Nor were they invited out of the goodness of the Pilgrims&rsquo hearts to share the fruits of the Pilgrims&rsquo harvest in a demonstration of Christian charity and interracial brotherhood. The Wampanoag were members of a widespread confederacy of Algonkian-speaking peoples known as the League of the Delaware. For six hundred years they had been defending themselves from my other ancestors, the Iroquois, and for the last hundred years they had also had encounters with European fishermen and explorers but especially with European slavers, who had been raiding their coastal villages. They knew something of the power of the white people, and they did not fully trust them. But their religion taught that they were to give charity to the helpless and hospitality to anyone who came to them with empty hands. Also, Squanto, the Indian hero of the Thanksgiving story, had a very real love for a British explorer named John Weymouth, who had become a second father to him several years before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth. Clearly, Squanto saw these Pilgrims as Weymouth&rsquos people. To the Pilgrims the Indians were heathens and, therefore, the natural instruments of the Devil. Squanto, as the only educated and baptized Christian among the Wampanoag, was seen as merely an instrument of God, set in the wilderness to provide for the survival of His chosen people, the Pilgrims.

The Indians were comparatively powerful and, therefore, dangerous and they were to be courted until the next ships arrived with more Pilgrim colonists and the balance of power shifted. The Wampanoag were actually invited to that Thanksgiving feast for the purpose of negotiating a treaty that would secure the lands of the Plymouth Plantation for the Pilgrims. It should also be noted that the INDIANS, possibly out of a sense of charity toward their hosts, ended up bringing the majority of the food for the feast.

5. A generation later, after the balance of power had indeed shifted, the Indian and White children of that Thanksgiving were striving to kill each other in the genocidal conflict known as King Philip&rsquos War. At the end of that conflict most of the New England Indians were either exterminated or refugees among the French in Canada, or they were sold into slavery in the Carolinas by the Puritans. So successful was this early trade in Indian slaves that several Puritan ship owners in Boston began the practice of raiding the Ivory Coast of Africa for black slaves to sell to the proprietary colonies of the South, thus founding the American-based slave trade.

Obviously there is a lot more to the story of Indian/Puritan relations in New England than in the thanksgiving stories we heard as children. Our contemporary mix of myth and history about the &ldquoFirst&rdquo Thanksgiving at Plymouth developed in the 1890s and early 1900s. Our country was desperately trying to pull together its many diverse peoples into a common national identity. To many writers and educators at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, this also meant having a common national history. This was the era of the &ldquomelting pot&rdquo theory of social progress, and public education was a major tool for social unity. It was with this in mind that the federal government declared the last Thursday in November as the legal holiday of Thanksgiving in 1898.


The First Thanksgiving and Gratitude

While the First Thanksgiving may seem very simple, the Pilgrims actually experienced so much turmoil along the way that it wasn’t as straightforward as we may like to tell it.

Many have argued about its relevance to the Native Americans and accounts of such history are sometimes contested. This gives the contemporary Thanksgiving a different perspective, and for this reason, some Americans do not follow the tradition of the First Thanksgiving.

But what is the significance of the First Thanksgiving? Remove the feast, remove the festivals, and the cooking, the First Thanksgiving was always about giving thanks.

It was a very momentous movement for the Pilgrims together with the Wampanoag who helped them achieve their fruitful harvest, and it was a moment to thank God above for such blessings.

The Pilgrims were Christians seeking religious freedom in the New World and having a feast for gratitude was one of the ideological rituals that they were accustomed to. It can be said that the Wampanoag had a similar ritual, as well.

And because of their unity, both communities, despite the differences in their religions and beliefs, were able to celebrate gratitude towards the blessings received.


Setting the Stage

When the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock on December 16, 1620, they were well-armed with information about the region, thanks to the mapping and knowledge of their predecessors like Samuel de Champlain. He and untold numbers of other Europeans who had by then been journeying to the continent for well over 100 years already had well-established European enclaves along the eastern seaboard (Jamestown, Virginia, was already 14 years old and the Spanish had settled in Florida in the mid-1500s), so the Pilgrims were far from the first Europeans to set up a community in the new land. During that century the exposure to European diseases had resulted in pandemics of illness among Indigenous peoples from Florida to New England that decimated Indigenous populations (aided as well by the trade of enslaved Indigenous peoples) by 75% and in many cases more—a fact well known and exploited by the Pilgrims.

Plymouth Rock was actually the village of Patuxet, the ancestral land of the Wampanoag, which for untold generations had been a well-managed landscape cleared and maintained for corn fields and other crops, contrary to the popular understanding of it as a “wilderness.” It was also the home of Squanto. Squanto, who is famous for having taught the Pilgrims how to farm and fish, saving them from certain starvation, had been kidnapped as a child, was sold into enslavement and sent to England where he learned how to speak English (making him so useful to the Pilgrims). Having escaped under extraordinary circumstances, he found passage back to his village in 1619 only to find the majority of his community wiped out only two years before by a plague. But a few remained and the day after the Pilgrims’ arrival while foraging for food they happened upon some households whose occupants were gone for the day.

One of the colonists’ journal entries tells of their robbery of the houses, having taken “things” for which they “intended” to pay the Indigenous inhabitants for at some future time. Other journal entries describe the raiding of corn fields and of “finding” other food buried in the ground, and the robbing of graves of “the prettiest things which we carried away with us, and covered the body back up.” For these findings, the Pilgrims thanked God for his help "for how else could we have done it without meeting some Indians who might trouble us." Thus, the Pilgrims’ survival that first winter can be attributed to Indigenous peoples both alive and dead, both witting and unwitting.


The First Meeting at Plymouth Almost Ended In Bloodshed

On this November day at Plymouth, Massasoit sent Samoset and Tisquantum ahead while he and the rest of his Indian party kept out of sight. What followed was a tense encounter that could have abruptly ended the Pilgrims’ foray in the New World:

Samoset and Tisquantum spoke with the colonists for about an hour. Perhaps they then gave a signal. Or perhaps Massasoit was simply following a prearranged schedule. In any case, he and the rest of the Indian party appeared without warning at the crest of a hill on the south bank of the creek that ran through the foreigners’ camp. Alarmed by Massasoit’s sudden entrance, the Europeans withdrew to the hill on the opposite bank, where they had emplaced their few cannons behind a half-finished stockade. A standoff ensued.

It ended when Edward Winslow, who would later serve as governor of Plymouth Colony and co-author an account of the first Thanksgiving, waded into the creek wearing a full suit of armor and carrying a sword. Through Tisquantum, he offered himself as a hostage. Massasoit accepted and, along with Tisquantum and 20 of his men, crossed over the creek and into the Pilgrim settlement.

Thus the historic meeting and later, after a negotiations and an alliance agreement, the great Thanksgiving feast. Yet the machinations continued. Mann writes about how Tisquantum had plans for reestablishing the remaining Patuxet and convincing the other Wampanoag that he would make a better leader than Massasoit. To do this, writes Mann, he tried to play the Pilgrims and Massasoit against one another, and in the spring of 1622 hatched his plot: “he told the colonists that Massasoit was going to double-cross them by leading a joint attack on Plymouth with the Narragansett. And he attempted to trick the Pilgrims into attacking the sachem.”

It didn’t work, largely because in the event, cooler heads prevailed. But when Massasoit learned of Tisquantum’s failed plot, he demanded the Pilgrims hand him over for execution, which the Pilgrims refused to do. Massasoit, enraged, cut off all contact with Plymouth, including trade, a move that hit Plymouth especially hard amid a drought that summer that withered their crops. Tisquantum would never again leave Plymouth without an escort, and died shortly thereafter on return from a diplomatic trip to southeast Cape Cod.

As for Massasoit and the Wampanoag, their peace with the Pilgrims lasted more than 50 years, until 1675, when one of Massasoit’s sons launched an attack and triggered a conflict that would encompass all of New England. The Europeans won, in large part, according to Mann, because by then they outnumbered the natives: “Groups like the Narragansett, which had been spared by the epidemic of 1616, were crushed by a smallpox epidemic in 1633. A third to half of the remaining Indians in New England died… Their societies were destroyed by weapons their opponents could not control and did not even know they had.”