GREENWICH, N.Y. — 2021 marked the 400th anniversary of the “First Thanksgiving” that was celebrated between the English Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Native Americans in the fall of 1621. The gathering has become the basis for today’s Thanksgiving that is celebrated each year. But how did this event come to take place and what was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving? Read on to revisit this well-known story.
The story begins with the Wampanoag Native Americans. The Wampanoag lived in New England for thousands of years (and still do today). Their territory extended from the east coast of Massachusetts, including what is today Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, down to what is present day Bristol, Rhode Island.1 Their once great nation of around 40,000 people became severely weakened due to an epidemic that ravaged their communities from 1616-1619, a time referred as “The Great Dying” by the Wampanoag.2
The Pilgrims were an English religious minority who sought a place to start their lives new and worship freely. The Pilgrims referred to themselves as “Saints” (the term Pilgrim was not used until the early 1800s) because they sought to be separated from the Church of England. They felt the Church of England resembled Roman Catholicism too much and desired to be their own congregation and practice their Christian faith in a simpler, less structured way. However, this was illegal in England at the time and they were harassed, fined, and sometimes jailed for their beliefs.3
After fleeing to the Netherlands for over a decade the Saints decided to move to America in order to retain their English identity and worship freely. They entered into an agreement with investors who supplied them with ships and other goods and in return the Pilgrims would provide the investors with natural resources for seven years after establishing a colony. After some initial troubles the Pilgrims set sail on September 6, 1620.4
After a turbulent two-month voyage on the Mayflower the Pilgrims arrived in New England. They had originally aimed to settle near New York City area, however dangerous conditions and the lateness of the year lead them to remain in New England. They soon discovered an abandoned Wampanoag village and began to resettle it forming what would become Plymouth Colony. However, their first winter in Plymouth was a harsh one. With most colonists still living on the Mayflower, diseases like scurvy and pneumonia spread easily. Only 52 of the 102 initial Pilgrims survived the winter.5
While there were sightings of each group in the first few months of the Pilgrims’ arrival, there was not much contact before March of 1621. However, the Pilgrims were soon visited by two English speaking Native Americans. First an Abenaki named Samoset and then a Patuxet Wampanoag named Tisquantum, widely known as Squanto.6 Squanto became an important figure acting as an interpreter between the Wampanoag and English. With the two groups both weakened, they came to form an agreement of mutual protection promising to not harm the other, and to come to the other’s aid amongst other matters.7
Squanto came to live with the Pilgrims and taught them the Wampanoag ways of growing food, in particular corn. The Wampanoag method involved planting corn seeds with fish buried over top of them in small mounds. The decomposing fish acted as a fertilizer for the corn. When the corn had grown, beans and squash would be planted at the base of the corn in order to climb the corn stalk as they grew. The beans and squash also provided nitrogen to the soil helping the corn grow.8
Through their interaction and new found knowledge a bountiful crop was produced and the Pilgrims decided to have a feast to celebrate in the fall of 1621 to give thanks to God after a year of hardship. Little is known about the feast itself as there are only two eyewitness accounts of the event. Though the date is unknown it is believed to have occurred sometime between September 21-November 9, 1621.9 Days of thanksgiving were done by both the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims so the 1621 celebration was probably not the “first” kind of this event for either group, although it likely was the first time they participated in such an event together.
It is known that Wampanoag sachem Ousamequin (better known as Massasoit) and 90 other Wampanoag were present joining the Pilgrims who consisted of 22 men, four women, and 25 children/teenagers. While some believe the meeting occurred by chance others believe the Wampanoag must have been invited since Ousamequin lived about 40 miles away and it would have required some organization to get him and 90 of his colleagues there.10
The Pilgrims and Wampanoag celebrated for three days enjoying the fruits of the harvest as well as various forms of entertainment such as demonstrating their weaponry. In his account of the event a Pilgrim named Edward Winslow wrote, “…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…”11 Both groups were likely a little hesitant as the Pilgrims and Wampanoag were still getting used to one another and Squanto, and potentially a few others, acted as the only interpreters between the two parties. Nevertheless, the event likely helped solidify their new alliance and build rapport with one another.12
What was actually on the “First Thanksgiving’s” table? Turkey was not the main feature as it is today, but it may have been on the table. Plymouth colony’s governor William Bradford mentioned in his account there being “a great store of wild turkeys” that year, along with other wildfowl like geese, ducks, and swans which were commonly eaten by the Pilgrims.13 There was definitely venison as Winslow wrote that the Wampanoag went hunting and brought back five deer for the occasion.14 Seafood and shellfish like cod, bass, lobsters, mussels, and eels to name a few were plentiful along the coast and were also commonly eaten by both groups.15
Corn was on the table, although the multi-colored “Indian corn” that was grown then would have been ground into corn meal and made into a porridge instead of eaten in its kernel form. Vegetables like beans, onions, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots, turnips and others were grown in gardens by Pilgrims and also eaten by the Wampanoag. Various kinds of berries and roots and nuts also may have been at the First Thanksgiving too.16 Like the event itself, much of what was eaten remains unknown.
While aspects of the first Thanksgiving have been obscured or distorted since the event took place, it was nonetheless a remarkable moment of peace in our nation’s history. Pilgrim Edward Winslow concluded his remarks on the event saying, “…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.”17 Thanksgiving celebrations were held intermittently in subsequent years, but it would not become a recognized holiday until 1863.
1 Nancy Eldredge, “Who are the Wampanoag?,” Plimoth Patuxet Museums, accessed November 17, 2022, https://plimoth.org/for-students/homework-help/who-are-the-wampanoag.
2 David Kindy, “How to Tell the Thanksgiving Story on Its 400th Anniversary,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 23, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-really-happened-at-the-first-thanksgiving-180979108/.
3 “Who were the Pilgrims?,” Plimoth Patuxet Museums, accessed November 17, 2022, https://plimoth.org/for-students/homework-help/who-were-the-pilgrims.
6 History.com Editors, “Thanksgiving 2022,” History, updated November 15, 2022, https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving#:~:text=In%201621%2C%20the%20Plymouth%20colonists,by%20individual%20colonies%20and%20states.
7 “Who were the Pilgrims?,” Plimoth Patuxet Museums, accessed November 17, 2022, https://plimoth.org/for-students/homework-help/who-were-the-pilgrims.
8 “Growing Food,” Plimoth Patuxet Museums, accessed November 17, 2022, https://plimoth.org/for-students/homework-help/growing-food.
9 “Thanksgiving,” Plimoth Patuxet Museums, accessed November 17, 2022, https://plimoth.org/for-students/homework-help/thanksgiving.
10 David Kindy, “How to Tell the Thanksgiving Story on Its 400th Anniversary,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 23, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-really-happened-at-the-first-thanksgiving-180979108/.
12 David Kindy, “How to Tell the Thanksgiving Story on Its 400th Anniversary,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 23, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-really-happened-at-the-first-thanksgiving-180979108/.
15 History.com Editors, “First Thanksgiving Meal,” History, updated November 15, 2022, https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/first-thanksgiving-meal.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.