400 Years Old – The First Thanksgiving in America

Thanksgiving celebrations or festivals following fall harvest have a history going back to ancient times across many cultures and parts of the world. This year, the United States celebrates the 400th anniversary of its historically recognized first Thanksgiving in Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts where the Pilgrims settled in America.

Prior to the Pilgrim Thanksgiving with the Wampanoag (“People of the First Light”) in 1621, historical records show other lesser known celebrations that took place in the US. After safely arriving in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Avile celebrated their safe arrival with mass of thanksgiving to God followed by a feast with the local Timucua tribe. Following the first US settlements in the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1607, Thanksgiving services were routine and the first permanent settlement in Jamestown had a thanksgiving in 1610. And in 1619, 38 settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County, Virginia. The sponsor of this trip, London Company, issued a charter that specifically required the group to recognize that the day of their arrival in Virginia “…shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” While there may be other legitimate claims as the first Thanksgiving, the 1621 Thanksgiving is considered the start of the Thanksgiving tradition in the United States.

The Journey
In the early 1600s, King James I and the Church of England were hunting down, imprisoning and sometimes executing anyone who didn’t recognize their absolute civil and spiritual authority. A group of about 400 Puritan separatists (eventually “the Pilgrims”) fled to Holland to escape this persecution and build a new community. After 11 years, the group decided to emigrate to America. The first group of Puritans left Holland early August 1620 for England to board their two ships – the Mayflower and the Speedwell – and travel to a new beginning financed by their sponsors, including the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. The ships first left England around August 5, 1620 but a leaking Speedwell necessitated three returns to England for repairs. They decided to abandon the Speedwell and all 102 of the travelers – a mix of the Puritan separatists and adventurers and tradesmen who were referred to as “Strangers” – left on the overcrowded Mayflower. Including crew, there was a total of 130 people (plus supplies and some animals) travelling on a boat with living space of no more than 1,600 square feet (the Mayflower measured approximately 100×25 with a 5’ ceiling height below deck). Keep in mind, today the average square footage of a single family home in the United States is over 2,400 square feet! The Mayflower finally left Plymouth, England September 16, 1620 for its voyage to the New World.
During the voyage, there was one death, one birth (Oceanus Hopkins who died within two years) and one man overboard who was rescued. The last half of the trip brought fierce northeasterly storms that battered a Mayflower that was already in poor shape. Finally, land was sighted November 19, 1620 and they anchored in Cape Cod (specifically Provincetown Harbor) on November 21 – far north of their intended destination of the mouth of the Hudson River (Staten Island, NY). Before anchoring, William Bradford penned The Mayflower Compact, an agreement the Pilgrims used as their governing document to set rules and laws to live as a peaceful community. It reads in part:

..Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony;…

Some scholars view this as the first constitution of a democratic government in which each person had a right to participate. It was signed by 41 of the men in the group on November 18, 1620.

The First Year
Arriving at the beginning of winter, the Pilgrims were unprepared for what lay ahead of them. They spent the entire winter aboard the Mayflower except for reconnoitering trips to scout the area and find food. The local Native Americans were helpful and critical to their survival. By April 1, 1621, lack of food and shelter combined with an undetermined contagious disease killed 46 of the settlers (19 were signers of the Compact) and almost 20 of the crew – about half of the original sailing party. On March 31, the remaining 53 Pilgrims left the Mayflower and began building their settlement on present day Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts. The Mayflower left April 15, 1621 and returned to London on May 16. Four years later, she was sold for scrap.

As the Pilgrims began building their community, they abided by a contract they had with the financial sponsors of the voyage. This contract required that everything that was produced – food, land that was cleared, buildings, etc. – went to a common store. Everything an individual produced was put into the store and one was only allowed to take out what was needed. Everyone owned an equal share of this store. In essence, they attempted to run a commune for the first few years. The harvests of 1621 and 1622 were poor. While progress was being made, William Bradford, who had been elected governor, noted many of the Pilgrims refused to work in the field and opted to steal food instead. His writings indicate the colony was filled with “corruption”, “confusion and discontent”. Following those first two harvests, he wrote “all had their hungry bellies filled” but that was only for a short time as famine and death continued to plague the Pilgrims those first winters. Governor Bradford saw that this model of colony living was not working. He noted in his writings:

…For this community [so far as it was] was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort…
…young men that were most able and fit for labor and service [complained about being forced to] spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children.
…the strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes, than he that was weak.

Essentially, the amount of food being produced was never enough to satisfy the community’s needs.

Beginning in 1623, Bradford took radical action. He assigned each family their own plot of land and they were allowed to do whatever they wanted. They could keep their production, trade or sell their production or do nothing at all. The 1623 harvest was dramatically different. Bradford wrote:

…instead of famine now God gave them plenty and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God… any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day.
The 1624 harvest was so fruitful, they began exporting corn!

But spring 1621 was the beginning. With the help of the Wampanoag tribes, the Pilgrims survived the winter and learned to live in the New World. Of great help was Squanto (“Tisquantum”) who was the last of the Patuxet tribe. Squanto had been kidnapped with other natives in 1614 by English explorer Thomas Hunt and sold to monks in Malaga, Spain. The monks focused on education and evangelization of the men they bought. Squanto eventually made his way to England and then back to the New World. Upon returning to his native area in 1619, he found the tribe had been wiped out from an epidemic infection, possibly smallpox. Soon after his return, the Pilgrims settled on his tribe’s former home. Squanto spoke English and was able to help broker a peaceable working relationship between the Pilgrims and the Pokanoket tribe (led by Chief Massasoit) in March 1621. He lived with the Pilgrims for the next 20 months teaching them fur trading, how to sow and fertilize the native crops and the geography and terrain of the area as well as the politics of the area tribes. Governor Bradford wrote that Squanto contracted an “Indian fever” on a trading trip and died shortly after in November 1622. Some historians believe he may have been poisoned by Chief Massasoit.

The First Thanksgiving
While the 1621 harvest was somewhat successful (20 acres of corn and 6 acres of barley – the peas didn’t work out), the Pilgrims were grateful for it and for surviving their first year. A celebration was in order after a year filled with ordeals. This festival is estimated to have taken place sometime between late September and early November 1621. Another of the original Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, wrote this about the first Thanksgiving:

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 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 amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst 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 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.

In a Wampanoag historical account, Cedric Cromwell, current chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe (and recently indicted on bribery and extortion charges related to the tribe’s effort to build a resort casino) stated the feast was:

…a diplomatic effort for peace after the Wampanoag spotted Pilgrims in a field shooting muskets for practice. He said Massasoit sent 90 men their way — only to find out ‘what they were doing was planning on how to take us out.’ They said, 'Let's sit down and talk about peace,' Cromwell said. "And so we sat down and came up with 75 years of peace — the longest-standing peace known within this country.

Attendance at this Thanksgiving was a male only affair comprising about 140 people – mostly members of the Pokanoket tribe including Chief Massasoit. By most accounts, there were only 50-55 Pilgrims in the colony – 22 men, 9 male teens, 5 female teens, 13 young children and only 4 married women. In all likelihood, the Pokanoket tribe provided and prepared most of the food, too. The celebration lasted three days and, while no records exist of the menu, meat options would have been pork, venison, rabbit, chicken and goat. Vegetable possibilities would have included corn, squash, pumpkin, carrots and turnip greens. Grapes and cherries were available in the area and, with Cape Cod Bay right there, seafood was likely included – possibly cod, lobster, mussels and other fish.

There is so much more to tell. But the beginnings of our nation and its early lessons are deeply entrenched in this first Thanksgiving. Faith, family, perseverance, hard work, learning from mistakes, risk, gratitude and more – may we continue to learn and grow from these lessons, never forgetting our history and continue to make the United States a beacon of hope and opportunity for all its citizens. Happy Thanksgiving!

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