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Who Was at the First Thanksgiving?

Who Was at the First Thanksgiving?


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As families around the country prepare to gather with family, eat turkey and perhaps partake in some Black Friday shopping, they might be surprised to learn how much we don’t know about the origins of the Thanksgiving.

Nearly all of what historians have learned about the first Thanksgiving comes from a single eyewitness report: a letter written in December 1621 by Edward Winslow, one of the 100 or so people who sailed from England aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and founded Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. William Bradford, Plymouth’s governor in 1621, wrote briefly of the event in Of Plymouth Plantation, his history of the colony, but that was more than 20 years after the feast itself.

According to this account, the historic event didn’t happen on the fourth Thursday in November, as it does today—and it wasn’t known as Thanksgiving. In fact, it took place over three days sometime between late September and mid-November in 1621, and was considered a harvest celebration.

“Basically it was to celebrate the end of a successful harvest,” says Tom Begley, the executive liaison for administration, research and special projects at Plimoth Plantation. “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.”

READ MORE: Thanksgiving: Origins and Traditions

It was a feast for a young crowd.

Just over 50 colonists are believed to have attended, including 22 men, four married women—including Edward Winslow’s wife—and more than 25 children and teenagers. These were the lucky ones who had made it through a rough entry into the New World, including a harsh winter during which an epidemic of disease swept through the colony, felling nearly half the original group. Some 78 percent of the women who had arrived on the Mayflower had died during the first winter, a far higher percentage than for men or children. “For the English, [the first Thanksgiving] was also celebrating the fact that they had survived their first year here in New England,” Begley points out.

The Plymouth colonists were likely outnumbered more than two-to-one at the event by their Native American counterparts. Winslow’s account records “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men.” Massasoit (who was actually named Ousemequin) was the sachem (leader) of the Pokanoket Wampanoag, a local Native American society that had begun dealings with the colonists earlier in 1621.

“We don't know for sure how it came about that they were there,” Begley says of the Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving. “Some native historians have suggested that Massasoit and his men were in the area anyways, because at the end of the harvest was when they typically made their diplomatic rounds to other native groups. Also, Massasoit commented to the Pilgrims in March of 1621 that they would be back to plant the corn on the south side of what we know as Town Brook in Plymouth. So he still recognizes that there are some planting grounds that are his peoples’ in Plymouth.”

READ MORE: Why Did the Pilgrims Come to America?

The first feast was also about giving thanks.

While the 1621 event may not have been called Thanksgiving, the sentiment was certainly present in that historic celebration, just as it would play a defining role in how the tradition developed over the centuries to come.

“Giving thanks is really an important part of both cultures,” Begley says. “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.”

For the Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving, giving thanks was a daily part of life. “We as native people [traditionally] have thanksgivings as a daily, ongoing thing," Linda Coombs, the former associate director of the Wampanoag program at Plimoth Plantation, told the Christian Science Monitor. "Every time anybody went hunting or fishing or picked a plant, they would offer a prayer or acknowledgment."

Venison and shellfish were on the menu.

When the colonists and Native Americans sat down to feast, they probably enjoyed quite different fare than what we’re used to seeing on our Thanksgiving tables today. They may have eaten wild turkey, which Bradford mentions was plentiful in the colony, but it’s not certain even that most ubiquitous of Thanksgiving staples was on the menu.

In addition to venison (Winslow wrote that the Native Americans killed five deer and presented it to the colonists), Begley says that the group probably ate fish and shellfish, which were abundant in the region, as well as fruits and vegetables that the colonists grew in their home gardens. “Cabbage, carrot, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, parsnips, pumpkins,” he lists. “There were also a lot of native wild plants that English learned how to cook, including Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, cranberries, Concord grapes, walnuts and chestnuts.”

READ MORE: What Was on the Menu at the First Thanksgiving?

The Plymouth colonists certainly did not serve potatoes, which weren’t available to them at the time, and it’s unlikely they prepared the sweet cranberry sauce we know today—their cranberries were more likely a tart garnish. Pumpkin pie would have been impossible, as the colony didn’t have butter, wheat flour or an oven.

As for who prepared the food for the first Thanksgiving, Winslow’s account (like many contemporary sources) doesn’t offer much in the way of domestic details. “There were only four English housewives that were alive in 1621, out of, I think, 20 that came on the Mayflower,” Begley says. “That's not really a lot of people to help you prepare a meal for over 100. So we can speculate that the children, servants and probably some unmarried men were also helping out in preparing all the food.”

The fall tradition took hold in New England.

While it’s not known whether the Plymouth colonists repeated the 1621 celebration in subsequent years, the tradition of giving thanks to God merged with celebrations of the harvest to become a fall tradition in New England by the late 1600s.

But the significance of that first 1621 harvest celebration didn’t really emerge until the mid-19th century, after the writer Alexander Young rediscovered Winslow’s letter and made it famous in his 1841 book Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers. Bradford’s manuscript, stolen by the British during the Revolutionary War, was recovered in the 1850s, just in time for the magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale to incorporate it into her campaign to create an official national Thanksgiving holiday.

In 1863, Hale achieved her goal when President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the final Thursday in November as a national Thanksgiving holiday for the first time. From its roots in the Plymouth harvest celebration to Hale and Lincoln’s attempt to mend a divided nation during the Civil War, we can trace the origins of the annual celebration of family, food and gratitude we know today.

As for Black Friday, that’s a whole other story.

Get the history behind the holiday. Access hundreds of hours of commercial-free series and specials with HISTORY Vault.


Brief History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving re-enactment done for the documentary Desperate Crossing. Promotional image courtesy of Lone Wolf Documentary Group.

The tradition of the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving is steeped in myth and legend. Few people realize that the Pilgrims did not celebrate Thanksgiving the next year, or any year thereafter, though some of their descendants later made a "Forefather's Day" that usually occurred on December 21 or 22. Several Presidents, including George Washington, made one-time Thanksgiving holidays. In 1827, Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale began lobbying several Presidents for the creation of Thanksgiving as a national holiday, but her lobbying was unsuccessful until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln finally made it a national holiday.

Today, our Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. This was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941), who changed it from Abraham Lincoln's designation as the last Thursday in November (which could occasionally end up being the fifth Thursday, and hence too close to Christmas for businesses). But the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving began at some unknown date between September 21 and November 9, most likely in very early October. The date of Thanksgiving was probably set by Lincoln to somewhat correlate with the anchoring of the Mayflower at Cape Cod, which occurred on November 21, 1620 (by our modern Gregorian calendar--it was November 11 to the Pilgrims who used the Julian calendar).

There are only two contemporary accounts of the 1621 Thanksgiving: First is Edward Winslow's account, which he wrote in a letter dated December 12, 1621. The complete letter was first published in 1622.

The second description was written about twenty years after the fact by William Bradford in his History Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford's History was rediscovered in 1854 after having been taken by British looters during the Revolutionary War. Its discovery prompted a greater American interest in the history of the Pilgrims. It is also in this account that the Thanksgiving turkey tradition is founded.

The primary sources above only list a few items that were on the Thanksgiving "menu", namely five deer, a large number of turkeys and waterfowl, cod, and bass plus the harvest, which consisted of wheat, corn, barley, and perhaps any peas that survived the scorching. To that list, we can probably add a few additional things that are known to have been native to the area and eaten by the Pilgrims: clams, mussels, lobster, eel, ground nuts, acorns, walnuts, chestnuts, squashes, and beans. Fruits and berries such as strawberries, raspberries, grapes, and gooseberries were available growing wild. Pilgrim house-gardens may have included a number of English vegetables and herbs, perhaps things like onions, leeks, sorrel, yarrow, lettuce, carrots, radishes, currants, liverwort, watercress, and others. It is unlikely much in the way of supplies brought on the Mayflower survived, such as Holland Cheese, olive oil, butter, salt pork, sugar, spices, lemons, beer, aqua-vitae, or bacon. It appears the Pilgrims may have had some chickens with them, so likely had access to a limited number of eggs. No mention of swine is found in any account of the first year. They did not yet have any goats or cattle: the first of those arrived on the ship Anne in 1623.

The "Popcorn Myth" would have us believe the Indians introduced the Pilgrims to popcorn at this Thanksgiving: but the Indian corn they grew was Northern Flint, which does not pop well. It was parched to make a simple snack, and the Indians sometimes ground it up and mixed it with strawberries for a cake-like desert. Potatoes and sweet potatoes had not yet been introduced to New England.


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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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 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.


The Myth of Thanksgiving

Since the 1920s, American schoolchildren have been taught that the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful, celebratory meal shared between Pilgrims and Native Americans to toast the success of the fledgling English settlement in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621. It&rsquos a lovely little vignette that many contemporary Americans regard as the basis of the holiday. While this happy myth of a multicultural dinner is rooted in a touch of truth, it doesn&rsquot tell the whole story&mdashthe complicated story&mdashof Thanksgiving.


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."


Thanksgiving has a rich history, and in many ways, it is the history of America. Thanksgiving dates back to the time when the pilgrims reached America, and were greeted warmly by the Native Americans, also known as Indians. In course of time, these pilgrims mixed into the culture and life of the Native Americans, which gradually developed into the nation that we know today.

There are two views of the history of Thanksgiving though, both of which are under lined below. Go through the rest of page for more details.

The turkey has become the most important icon of Thanksgiving. We have also provided a history of Turkey after the history of Thanksgiving. Read, enjoy and share.

SOURCES FOR "THE FIRST THANKSGIVING"

The events of Plymouth in autumn 1621 relates to the first thanksgiving, there are 2 primary sources for them. However, research conducted by Center for World Thanksgiving at Thanks-Giving Square throws a good deal of light on the subject. Given below are the citations from the two original writings followed by an analysis of the roots of Thanksgiving. Enjoy the history of Thanksgiving and forward it to your friends. Winslow, Mourt's Relation :

"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. 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 we 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."

William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation :

"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their house and dwelling against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned by true reports."


The story of Thanksgiving is basically the story of the Pilgrims and their thankful community feast at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims, who set sail from Plymouth, England on a ship called the Mayflower on September 6, 1620, were bound for the resourceful 'New World'. The Mayflower was a small ship crowded with men, women and children, besides the sailors on board. Aboard were passengers comprising the 'separatists', who called themselves the "Saints", and others, whom the separatists called the "Strangers".

After land was sighted in November following 66 days of a lethal voyage, a meeting was held and an agreement of truce was worked out. It was called the Mayflower Compact. The agreement guaranteed equality among the members of the two groups. They merged together to be recognized as the "Pilgrims." They elected John Carver as their first governor.

Although Pilgrims had first sighted the land off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, they did not settle until they arrived at a place called Plymouth. It was Captain John Smith who named the place after the English port-city in 1614 and had already settled there for over five years. And it was there that the Pilgrims finally decided to settle. Plymouth offered an excellent harbor and plenty of resources. The local Indians were also non-hostile.

But their happiness was short-lived. Ill-equipped to face the winter on this estranged place they were ravaged thoroughly.

Somehow they were saved by a group of local Native Americans who befriended them and helped them with food. Soon the natives taught the settlers the technique to cultivate corns and grow native vegetables, and store them for hard days. By the next winter they had raised enough crops to keep them alive. The winter came and passed by without much harm. The settlers knew they had beaten the odds and it was time to celebrate.

They celebrated it with a grand community feast wherein the friendly native Americans were also invited. It was kind of a harvest feast, the Pilgrims used to have in England. The recipes entail "corn" (wheat, by the Pilgrims usage of the word), Indian corn, barley, pumpkins and peas, "fowl" (specially "waterfowl"), deer, fish. And yes, of course the yummy wild turkey.

However, the third year was real bad when the corns got damaged. Pilgrim Governor William Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer, and rain happened to follow soon. To celebrate - November 29th of that year was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. This date is believed to be the real beginning of the present Thanksgiving Day.

Though the Thanksgiving Day is presently celebrated on the fourth Thursday of every November. This date was set by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 (approved by Congress in 1941). Earlier it was the last Thursday in November as was designated by the former President Abraham Lincoln. But sometimes the last Thursday would turn out to be the fifth Thursday of the month. This falls too close to the Christmas, leaving the businesses even less than a month's time to cope up with the two big festivals. Hence the change.


Turkey tradition

"The turkey is a much more respectable Bird and withal a true original Native of North America". Remarked Benjamin Franklin, the scientist cum statesman, who was in favor of making Turkey the national Bird, instead of Bald Eagle.

The wild turkey is native to northern Mexico and the eastern United States. Later it was domesticated in Mexico, and was brought into Europe early in the 16th century.

Since that time, turkeys have been extensively raised because of the excellent quality of their meat and eggs.

Some of the common breeds of turkey in the United States are the Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, and Bourbon Red. Though there is no real evidence that turkey was served at the Pilgrim's first thanksgiving, but through ages it became an indispensable part of the Thanksgiving tradition. The tradition of turkey is rooted in the 'History Of Plymouth Plantation', written by William Bradford some 22 years after the actual celebration.

In his letter sent to England Edward Winslow, another Pilgrim, describes how the governor sent "four men out fowling" and they returned with turkeys, ducks and geese.

Unfortunately the Bradford document was lost after being taken away by the British during the War of Independence. Later it was rediscovered in 1854. And since then turkey turned out to be a popular symbol of the Thanksgiving Day. And today of all the the Thanksgiving symbols it has become the most well known. The turkey has brown features with buff-colored feathers on the tips of the wing and on the tail. The male turkey is called a 'tom'. It is bigger and brighter with more colorful plumage. Also it has a long wattle (a fleshy, wrinkled, brightly colored fold of skin hanging from the neck or throat) at the base of its bill and additional wattles on the neck, as well as a prominent tuft of bristles resembling a beard projecting downward from its chest. The female is called a 'hen' and is generally smaller and drab in color.


The First Thanksgiving

Many Americans don’t know the origin of Thanksgiving as an official holiday. While 1622 is believed to be the year of the first unofficial Thanksgiving, it wasn’t until many years later that the holiday was made universal.

In 1789, Congress asked President George Washington to proclaim a special day of prayer and thanksgiving for our young nation. Here’s his formal response to that request…

By the President of the United States of America: a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor–and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me `to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be–That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions–to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness onto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789. George Washington

Randall acts as the lead writer for ColdWater’s Drive Thru History® TV series and Drive Thru History® “Adventures” curriculum.