It’s 1621, the year of the very first Thanksgiving festival. The Pilgrim Fathers have gathered to celebrate the first harvest in their newly settled lands of Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. In a magnanimous gesture, the settlers invite their Native American brethren to feast on turkey, pie and sweet potato. Sound familiar? Shockingly, much of the tale is actually fake history.
Before we examine the true story of what happened in the lead-up to the first Thanksgiving, let’s just remind ourselves of how central the institution has become to traditional American culture. Looking back in history, we can track the idea of having a special day of thanksgiving to the Pilgrims who settled in America from England in the early 17th century.
The first Thanksgiving on record celebrated by those Puritans, whom we often call Pilgrims, was in Virginia. Led by Captain John Woodlief, 38 men landed at Berkeley Hundred in Virginia’s Charles City County in December 1619. On the very day they arrived, they gave thanks to God as their original charter drawn up in London had stipulated they should. The charter further commanded that the anniversary of this day of landing should be observed as a time for giving thanks to God in future years.
Now that story about the first Thanksgiving in Virginia in 1619 might come as something of a surprise. It is not the familiar tale of the first Thanksgiving you almost certainly learnt about at your mother’s knee. The commonly accepted first Thanksgiving actually happened nearly two years later and in a different location.
Most of what we now celebrate as Thanksgiving is based on events at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts in 1621. And that festival, held in the fall, did not celebrate a safe landing but rather a successful harvest. It was in 1620 that the Pilgrims had arrived aboard the Mayflower off the shores of the New World and established the Plymouth Colony.
After their arrival on Virginian shores, things did not go well for the Pilgrims. During December 1620, the Mayflower sailed along the coast, anchoring at various points and sending parties ashore to explore the lie of the land. They found an abandoned Native American settlement and were attacked by some of the indigenous people.
Eventually, towards the end of December 1620, the Pilgrims chose a site at Plymouth for settlement. They began to erect buildings there for the 19 families and the various single men who had traveled on the Mayflower. And this was when the Pilgrims suffered the most from fatal diseases. Around half of the group died during that first winter, weakened by the rigors of their transatlantic crossing and probably finished off by a combination of pneumonia and scurvy.
In fact, the site that the Pilgrims had chosen to build on had previously been occupied by the Patuxet tribe, members of the wider Wampanoag people. However, a plague – probably smallpox – had wiped out all of the inhabitants of the Patuxet village three years earlier. This had so devastated the villagers that the pilgrims made the gruesome discovery of unburied bodies.
After their dreadful winter, things began to improve for the Pilgrims. They planted corn and other crops and the fall 1621 harvest was a success. A Native American they knew as Squanto greatly helped the settlers in their endeavors. Squanto was said to be the last survivor of the Patuxet tribe.
Squanto could speak some English and he was able to instruct the Pilgrims in how to get the best out of the land previously cultivated by the Patuxet villagers. He taught them survival skills, such as how to catch eels. Furthermore, he acted as an interpreter in communications between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans of the region.
Another Native American, a leader of the Wampanoag people called Massasoit , also came to the aid of the new settlers. In March 1621 the chief entered into an agreement with the Pilgrims which guaranteed neither side would attack the other. Massasoit also gave the English food as their supplies ran out. Some say that they could not have survived until their first harvest without that help.
So as we’ve seen, it had been a grim year for the Pilgrims, with the trials of the Atlantic voyage from Europe and the disease and death which had afflicted them in their first months at Plymouth. So it’s little wonder that they were keen to celebrate the success of their first harvest. And to do so, they combined religious observance with a sumptuous feast.
The first Thanksgiving celebration ran on for three days. Massasoit joined the Pilgrim’s party with some 90 of his men. And, the traditional story goes, the two peoples, the English Puritans and the Native American Wampanoag people were happy to celebrate and break bread together. Although, as we’ll see shortly, things were not quite as harmonious as the legends would have us believe.
However, that picture of a united group of people feasting together and thanking the Lord for a good harvest is probably the strongest influence on how we see Thanksgiving today. Of course now it’s very much a family event, centered around a lavish dinner with a large roast turkey at the heart of the feast, and held each year on the fourth Thursday of November.
Food is very much at the center of modern-day Thanksgiving celebrations, as it was back in 1621. As well as the turkey, a contemporary American Thanksgiving dinner generally includes sweetcorn, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie. It’s said that Americans consume more food on the day of Thanksgiving that at any other time during the year.
So there we have it. Our modern Thanksgiving is based on the experience of the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth. After their tough year they praised the Lord for the plenty that their first harvest brought them, and they shared their good fortune with their Native American neighbors. But just how much of this rosy picture is true and how much of it is myth?
As we’ll see, much of what we think we know about the story that underpins our contemporary Thanksgiving celebrations is based on shaky history, if not outright fabrication. Let’s start with that friendly Native American who did so much to help the Pilgrims, Squanto. At the very least, the true story of his life can give us pause for thought about the accuracy of the Thanksgiving story.
We know virtually nothing about Squanto’s early life. His birth date is generally given as being roughly 1585, but that could be out by a decade in either direction. We do know that his proper name was actually Tisquantum and that he was a member of the Patuxet tribe. And we can surmise that his first contact with Europeans was hardly a happy affair from his point of view.
Tisquantum’s story starts in 1614 when an English trader called Thomas Hunt sailed into Patuxet Harbor with the apparent aim of buying fur from the people of Patuxet village. Somehow, he tricked 20 of the villagers into coming aboard his ship. Once he had them there, he imprisoned all of them. One of their number was the unfortunate Tisquantum.
Kidnapping Native Americans was a common enough practice among the early explorers of America as well as those who traveled there for trade. Hunt took his captives across the Atlantic to the port of Malaga on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. There Tisquantum and the other Patuxet people were sold into slavery. No doubt Hunt made a good profit on the deal.
In fact monks bought Tisquantum and some of his companions, apparently with the aim of teaching them Christian values. Perhaps their cheap labor was also attractive. Somehow, Tisquantum escaped the monks, or was perhaps released by them. In any case, he found his way from Spain to England. Once there, he is believed to have lived in London with one John Slany.
Slany was a prosperous shipbuilder and merchant and it was he who is said to have taught Tisquantum the English language. Since Slany had an interest in a scheme to colonize Newfoundland, perhaps he thought that Tisquantum might be of service to him at some point. Or perhaps he was just a good man. We have no way of knowing.
Whatever the truth of Slany’s motives, Tisquantum traveled back across the Atlantic and was in Newfoundland in 1618. From there he journeyed to his homeland and his village of Patuxet. But when he got there, the entire village had been wiped out by a plague. Tisquantum was now the last of the Patuxet.
So Tisquantum, given the treatment that he had suffered at their hands, had very little reason to love the white man. He had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. His people had been wiped out, very likely by disease introduced by the settlers to which the Native Americans had no resistance. Yet he proved himself invaluable to the folk of Plymouth Plantation.
Tisquantum first met the Pilgrims through another Native American, Samoset. This Samoset had been the first Native American with whom the Plymouth settlers had made friendly relations. It seems that this Samoset was quite a character. In an article in The Smithsonian magazine author Charles C. Mann described how the Native American introduced himself to the Pilgrims.
Mann described the first meeting between Samoset and the Pilgrims. “On March 17, 1621, Samoset had walked unaccompanied and unarmed into the circle of rude huts in which the British were living. The colonists saw a robust, erect-postured man wearing only a loincloth; his straight black hair was shaved in front but flowed down his shoulders behind. To their amazement, this almost naked man greeted them in broken but understandable English.”
We can only imagine how astonished the settlers were to meet someone in this alien world who could speak their language. And it seems that Tisquantum was far more fluent than Massasoit. The colony’s governor, William Bradford, appointed Tisquantum as a kind of liaison officer because of his good command of English. Tisquantum then actually lived with the Pilgrims.
It must have seemed strange to Tisquantum. Now he was living on the ancestral land of his Patuxet people once again. But they were all dead and the people he was surrounded by were from a different continent. Nevertheless, as we saw earlier, his help with cultivation may well have saved the Pilgrims from starvation.
That brings us back to the Plymouth Pilgrims’ 1621 Thanksgiving celebration. Our precise knowledge about the event is really rather limited. Even the date is unsure. As best we know it was sometime between late September and early November. We do have two contemporary accounts from Pilgrims, one from the governor, Bradford, the other from Edward Winslow.
In his Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 Bradford wrote, “They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty.” So it seems that the Pilgrims were indeed well stocked up for a celebration.
Winslow described preparations for the feast in his A Relation or Journal of the Beginning and Proceedings of the English Plantation Settled at Plimoth in New England. “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 fruits of our labor,” Winslow wrote.
Winslow went on to outline the events of the Thanksgiving festival, “..their greatest king Massasoit, with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others.”
As you’ll have noticed, there’s one glaring omission. Not a single mention of turkey. It’s true that there were plenty of wild turkeys around the Plymouth Colony. But there are no mentions in contemporary accounts of roast turkey being served. And the settlers had no flour or butter, so they couldn’t have baked pies. What’s more, sweet potatoes were unknown in those parts back then. So what is regarded as an absolute must for a modern Thanksgiving dinner, pumpkin pie, was definitely not on the menu.
Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief we met earlier, came to the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving. It was he who arrived with about 90 of his men and the widely accepted story is that the Pilgrims happily invited them to join their feast. In fact, it seems that the Thanksgiving encounter between Massasoit’s men and the Pilgrims was a little less friendly than tradition would have us believe.
In reality those men that arrived at the Pilgrim’s settlement were a 90-strong band of warriors and it seems that the Pilgrims were not at all sure that they liked the look of them. Just to be on the safe side, the settlers’ militia gave a kind of parade and fired their weapons into the air. This show of strength seems to have done the trick, since there was no violence at the festival. But it sounds like the dinner must have been rather more tense than tradition suggests.
So it’s fair to say that the picture of peace and goodwill painted by traditional accounts of the meeting between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people doesn’t quite tell the whole story. At a wider level, the first Thanksgiving can be viewed as a bad omen for the Wampanoag people. As we saw earlier, Massasoit had signed a treaty with the English in which they mutually agreed not to attack one another.
In truth, it’s probable that Massasoit was motivated by more than just natural friendliness in signing that treaty. Conflict with another Native American people, the Narragansett, who had long been enemies, also came into the picture. The Wampanoag had been devastated by the diseases brought to them by the Europeans and their weakness meant they were in danger of being overwhelmed by the neighboring Narragansett.
But by making peace with the Plymouth settlers, Massasoit was able to use this alliance to help protect his people from the Narragansett. And in the short term this proved to be a successful strategy. But part of the agreement included the Wampanoag allowing the Pilgrims to settle and stay as long as they liked in the land of the Wampanoag.
And the stability this agreement with the Wampanoag gave the settlers allowed them to flourish. And their success, it can be argued, was a major factor in the large influx of settlers from Britain in the following period. And as the years went by the Wampanoag and the other Native American peoples of the region were increasingly marginalized. So that first Thanksgiving was hardly an occasion to celebrate from the point of view of the Wampanoag and other Native American peoples.
In fact, it turns out that much of what we think we know about that first Thanksgiving feast is a product of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln declared the first official Thanksgiving Day. And that was to celebrate Unionist Civil War victories. Plus some historians say the very first Thanksgiving was in 1637 to mark the settlers’ victory over the Pequot Native Americans – in which case, it’s not quite the festival of peace and harmony of popular belief!