Photograph by Elena Elisseeva, Dreamstime
Photograph by Elena Elisseeva, Dreamstime

The First Thanksgiving

Native Americans and early settlers gave thanks together with this historic feast.

On the fourth Thursday of November, people in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving, a national holiday honoring the early settlers and Native Americans who came together to have a historic harvest feast.

NATIVE AMERICANS

Long before settlers came to the East Coast of the United States, the area was inhabited by many Native American tribes. The area surrounding the site of the first Thanksgiving, now known as southeastern Massachusetts and eastern Rhode Island, had been the home of the Wampanoag people for over 12,000 years, and had been visited by other European settlers before the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620. The native people knew the land well and had fished, hunted, and harvested for thousands of generations.

THE SETTLERS

The people who comprised the Plymouth Colony were a group of English Protestants called Puritans who wanted to break away from the Church of England. These "separatists" initially moved to Holland. But after 12 years of financial problems, they received funding from English merchants to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 1620 to settle in a "New World." Carrying 101 men, women, and children, the Mayflower traveled the ocean for 66 days and was supposed to land where New York City is now located. But windy conditions forced the group to cut their trip short and settle at what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

SETTLING AND EXPLORING

As the Puritans prepared for winter, they gathered anything they could find, including Wampanoag supplies.

One day, Samoset, a leader of the Abenaki people, and Tisquantum (better known as Squanto) visited the settlers. Squanto was a Wampanoag who had experience with other settlers and knew English. Squanto helped the settlers grow corn and use fish to fertilize their fields. After several meetings, a formal agreement was made between the settlers and the native people, and in March 1621, they joined together to protect each other from other tribes.

THE CELEBRATION

One day that fall, four settlers were sent to hunt for food for a harvest celebration. The Wampanoag heard gunshots and alerted their leader, Massasoit, who thought the English might be preparing for war. Massasoit visited the English settlement with 90 of his men to see if the war rumor was true.

Soon after their visit, the Native Americans realized that the English were only hunting for the harvest celebration. Massasoit sent some of his own men to hunt deer for the feast and for three days, the English and native men, women, and children ate together. The meal consisted of deer, corn, shellfish, and roasted meat, different from today's traditional Thanksgiving feast. They played ball games, sang, and danced.

Although prayers and thanks were probably offered at the 1621 harvest gathering, the first recorded religious Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth happened two years later in 1623. On this occasion, the colonists gave thanks to God for rain after a two-month drought.

THE MYTHS

Puritans are often thought of having silver buckles on their shoes and wearing somber, black clothing. Their attire was actually bright and cheerful (with no shoe buckles!). The Native Americans actualy didn't wear woven blankets on their shoulders and large, feathered headdresses, even though some artworks portray this. And though today we might refer to the Puritans as "Pilgrims," the Englishmen didn’t call themselves that.

NATIVE AMERICANS AND THANKSGIVING

The peace between the Native Americans and settlers lasted for only a generation. The Wampanoag people do not share in the popular reverence for the traditional New England Thanksgiving. For them, the holiday is a reminder of betrayal and bloodshed. Since 1970, many native people have gathered at the statue of Massasoit in Plymouth, Massachusetts, each Thanksgiving Day to remember their ancestors and the strength of the Wampanoag.

MODERN THANKSGIVING

In the 19th century, the modern Thanksgiving holiday started to take shape. In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of a magazine called Godley’s Lady’s Book, campaigned for an annual national thanksgiving holiday. But it wasn't until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln declared two national Thanksgivings; one in August to commemorate the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, and the other in November to give thanks for "general blessings." It's the second one that we celebrate today.