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The History of Thanksgiving

by Rob Ramsdale 11/9/04

History of the First Thanksgiving


The First Thanksgiving -- Pilgrims

The Pilgrims were English Separatists who founded (1620) Plymouth Colony in New England. In the first years of the 17th century, small numbers of English Puritans broke away from the Church of England because they felt that it had not completed the work of the Reformation. They committed themselves to a life based on the Bible. Most of these Separatists were farmers, poorly educated and without social or political standing. One of the Separatist congregations was led by William Brewster and the Rev. Richard Clifton in the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. The Scrooby group emigrated to Amsterdam in 1608 to escape harassment and religious persecution. The next year they moved to Leiden, where, enjoying full religious freedom, they remained for almost 12 years.

In 1617, discouraged by economic difficulties, the pervasive Dutch influence on their children, and their inability to secure civil autonomy, the congregation voted to emigrate to America. Through the Brewster family's friendship with Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer of the London Company, the congregation secured two patents authorizing them to settle in the northern part of the company's jurisdiction. Unable to finance the costs of the emigration with their own meager resources, they negotiated a financial agreement with Thomas Weston, a prominent London iron merchant. Fewer than half of the group's members elected to leave Leiden.

A small ship, the Speedwell, carried them to Southampton, England, where they were to join another group of Separatists and pick up a second ship. After some delays and disputes, the voyagers regrouped at Plymouth aboard the 180-ton Mayflower. It began its historic voyage on Sept. 16, 1620, with about 102 passengers--fewer than half of them from Leiden. After a 65-day journey, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod on November 19. Unable to reach the land they had contracted for, they anchored (November 21) at the site of Provincetown. Because they had no legal right to settle in the region, they drew up the Mayflower Compact, creating their own government.

The settlers soon discovered Plymouth Harbor, on the western side of Cape Cod Bay and made their historic landing on December 21; the main body of settlers followed on December 26. The term Pilgrim was first used by William Bradford to describe the Leiden Separatists who were leaving Holland. The Mayflower's passengers were first described as the Pilgrim Fathers in 1799.

Wampanoag - Native American Tribe

Long before the Pilgrims landed in New England and settled in Plymouth, the area was home to the Wampanoag, called "People of the dawn" because they lived in the east. The Wampanoag lived by farming, fishing, hunting and gathering.

In the spring, whole villages, moved to the seashore to fish and plant crops - corn, squash and beans. Since their homes were often made of woven mats streched with wood frames, they could carry the mats with them and leave the wooden structures behind for their return. In the fall and winter they moved inland to the forests of oak, maple and pine where they hunted deer, wolf, bear, beaver, moose, wild turkey, raccon, otter, and wildcat. From the streams, rivers , lakes and ocean they took fresh and salt water fish; in winter they fished through the holes of the ice.

The Wampanoag were used to giving thanks for nature's bounty. They thanked the spirits of the game they killed for food and thanked the Creator, Kiehtan, for good harvests. They believed that corn - their most valued food - was a gift from Kiehtan.

The presence of the Wamanpoag sachem, Massasoit, and his men at the Harvest Home was fitting. The Pilgrims had many reasons to thank them. Massasoithad made a traty with the Pilgrims which had kept their fields and homes safe. Squanto had shown the Pilgrims how to plant corn, the most plentiful crop they harvested in th e fall of 1621.

Plymouth Colony

The Pilgrims worked hard to survive in the new land. Coming ashore in late December made their task that much harder battling the cold weather and snow. They constructed homes of forest logs and sticks woven together. They mixed sand, clay, water, and straw to make a daub plaster to cover the walls. Pilgrim children were very busy with daily chores including: tending the fires, preparing meals, setting the table, milking goats, fetching water, and many others. They had very little time for play.

The Pilgrims hit hard times when they settled in the New Land. They had brought wheat to plant but it would not grow in the rocky soil. They were suffering a food shortage, living in dirt shelters, and many were dying. Due to their fear of the Native Americans, the Pilgrims would bury the dead at night so the Native Americans could not see how many were dying. Only half of those that traveled to the new land survived the harsh winter. The Pilgrims were in desperate need of help.

Imagine the Pilgrims surprise when a Native American named Samoset strolled into the village and spoke to them in English. Samoset knew little English so he found a fellow Wampanoag named Squanto who knew English well. The Pilgrims welcomed the help that Squanto brought them. Squanto stayed with the Pilgrims for the next few months teaching them survival skills. He taught them how to cultivate corn, beans, and other vegetables. Squanto taught the pilgrims to bury three fish and then plant the corn on top of the fish. This served as fertilizer. They would also plant beans around the corn to allow the bean plants to climb up the corn stalks for better growing. Squanto taught the Pilgrims about poisonous and medical plants, demonstrated how to dig for clams, get sap form maple trees, and many other skills.

The First Thanksgiving

By fall the Pilgrims were doing much better. Their leader, Captain Miles Standish, invited Squanto, Samoset, and other Wampanoag to join them for a celebration. The Native Americans observed six thanksgiving festivals during the year, including a fall harvest festival. The first Thanksgiving was celebrated to give thanks for the harvest. However, the Pilgrims were not prepared to feed over ninety Indians so Massasoit, the Native American leader, sent men home for more food. They brought back five deer. The Pilgrims and the Wampanoag feasted for three days and built friendship.

The original feast in 1621 occurred sometime between September 21 and November 11. Our only first hand account of the event comes from Edward Winslow, one of the original pilgrims in his letters.

"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, among 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 upon 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."

Edward Winslow, Dec. 11, 1621, in A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Mourt's Relation: A Relation or Journal of the English Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England, by certain English adventurers both merchants and others.) Dwight Heath, ed. New York: Corinth Books, 1963, p. 82

As you might imagine when cooking for 150+ people, the meal was not high on intricate cooking. However, the food was very tasty, as both the English and the native Americans knew how to plan for large parties. There were no forks at the time - just knives and spoons, and plates were usually wooden.

Items most likely on the menu --

Cornbread - admired by both the English and Native Americans
English Cheese Pie - cheese was important to the English
Venison - five deer were brought by the Native Americans
Ducks & Geese - gathered by the English
Wild Turkey - Native Americans and English alike enjoyed this meal
Garlic and Onions - staples of the diet
Pumpkin Pudding - there wasn't pumpkin pie at the time
Indian Pudding - can be served as a warm or cold dessert


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