In recent years, the celebration of a national Thanksgiving Day has been overlooked or even disdained by many who don’t understand its history and fundamental purpose. As we close out Thanksgiving week 2020 – in the midst of CoVid lockdowns and other restrictions – this story of the small group of English who arrived at Cape Cod in late 1620 (400 years ago!) and those who were befriended by the local natives and survived to celebrate a first harvest in late 1621 can bring encouragement and hope. My aim in writing this this blog post is to provide an understanding of the foundations of this quintessentially American holiday and to attract our current generations to an appreciation of the persistence and love of community exemplified by the 53 survivors of the first winter and their Wampanoag neighbors.
WHEN WAS THE FIRST THANKSGIVING?
The original feast of Thanksgiving upon which our American holiday is based took place in Plymouth, Northern Virginia (current day Massachusetts) in the autumn of 1621. It was a coming together of European English and their native Wampanoag neighbors, the latter having been invited by the former to thank them and God that at least some of the English had made it through their first harsh winter in the new land and had – with significant tribal help – been able to sow and harvest their first crop, hunt, fish, and build a few common buildings and small homes.
English at the first Thanksgiving numbered 4 married women, 5 adolescent girls, 9 adolescent boys, 13 young children, and 22 men. The seven dwelling-houses built in that first year were single room affairs, not suburban homes or even farmhouses. The women and the children able to assist them organized, prepared, and served all the food for several days of feasting for 150 people…outside…in November.
The governor of the little colony of English at the time of the feast – elected after the first governor died in the spring of 1621 – was William Bradford, only thirty-one years old at the time and trained in Europe as a maker of fustian cloth. Bradford’s wife had accidentally fallen to her death from the Mayflower on December 7, 1620 as the ship was at anchor in the harbor. Despite his own personal loss – one of many terrible deaths during those early months – Bradford had been unanimously chosen by his peers to be governor because of his piety, wisdom, and courage. He was such a capable public servant that he was re-elected to the office 30 times between 1622 and 1656 (he took off 5 years to take care of personal business but still assisted those who served). Later in his life, Bradford acted as Plymouth commissioner for the United Colonies and was its President in 1652 and 1656. It is from his diary that we have a simple first-hand account of the feast:
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. 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 about 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 a 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 but true reports.
Bradford was probably referring to a journal that Edward Winslow, who served as the diplomat for the English in matters concerning business, sent to a friend back in England. The friend may well have been George Morton, who subsequently published the journal in 1622 to inform the public there about life and opportunities in the frontier area. I think it is worthwhile to include an excerpt from the cover letter that “EW” sent with the journal to his “loving and old friend”:
You shall understand that in this little time that a few of us have been here, we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation, and have made preparation for divers others. We set the last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and pease, and according to the manner of the Indians, we manured our ground with herrings, or rather with shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown. They came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom.
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 fruit 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 [shooting contests] 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 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.
We have found the Indians very faithful in their covenant of peace with us, very loving and ready to pleasure us. We often go to them, and they come to us; some of us have been fifty miles by land in the country with them, the occasions and relations whereof you shall understand by our general and more full declaration of such things as are worth noting. Yea, it hath pleased God so to possess the Indians with a fear of us, and love unto us, that not only the greatest king amongst them, called Massasoit, but also all the princes and people round about us, have with made suit unto us, or been glad of any occasion to make peace with us, so that seven of them at once have sent their messengers to us to that end. Yea, an Isle at sea, which we never saw, hath also, together with the former, yielded willingly to be under the protection, and subjects to our sovereign lord King James. So that now there is great peace amongst the Indians themselves, which was not formerly, neither would have been but for us; as we for our parts walk as peaceably and safely in the wood as in the highways in England. We entertain them familiarly in our houses, and they as friendly bestowing their venison on us…
A second ship, the Fortune, arrived in November of 1621 bringing more English and supplies, but their arrival occurred after the Thanksgiving celebration mentioned here. One passenger, William Hilton, did mention local people, plants, and animals in a letter he wrote to a cousin in England that November:
Loving Cousin, At our arrival in New Plymouth, in New England, we found all our friends and planters in good health, though they were left sick and weak, with very small means; the Indians round about us peaceable and friendly; the country very pleasant and temperate, yielding naturally, of itself, great store of fruits, as vines of divers sorts in great abundance. There is likewise walnuts, chestnuts, small nuts and plums, with much variety of flowers, roots and herbs, no less pleasant than wholesome and profitable. No place hath more gooseberries and strawberries, nor better. Timber of all sorts you have in England doth cover the land, that affords beasts of divers sorts, and great flocks of turkey, quails, pigeons and partridges; many great lakes abounding with fish, fowl, beavers, and otters. The sea affords us great plenty of all excellent sorts of sea-fish, as the rivers and isles doth variety of wild fowl of most useful sorts. Mines we find, to our thinking; but neither the goodness nor quality we know. Better grain cannot be than the Indian corn, if we will plant it upon as good ground as a man need desire. We are all freeholders; the rent-day doth not trouble us; and all those good blessings we have, of which and what we list in their seasons for taking. Our company are, for most part, very religious, honest people; the word of God sincerely taught us every Sabbath; so that I know not any thing a contented mind can here want. I desire your friendly care to send my wife and children to me, where I wish all the friends I have in England; and so I rest
Your loving kinsman, William Hilton
WHO CAME ON THE MAYFLOWER?
The 102 passengers who began the voyage on the Mayflower (a group who were originally supposed to sail on two ships, not one) included 37 Separatists from an immigrant English congregation in Leiden, Holland who were seeking religious freedom that they could no longer find in England and feared might soon not be found in all of Europe (referred to later as “Pilgrims” or “Saints”); families and individuals recruited by London merchants (referred to later as “Strangers”); 18 indentured servants (of whom 13 were attached to Separatist families); and crew members who had contracted to stay a year in the new land after arriving. They all were supposed to settle in the area we now call Virginia but were blown off course and arrived much farther north – and considerably later than planned – in November.
Because they had landed north of the original destination, the Strangers argued that the Charter the Pilgrims had received to settle in Virginia no longer applied to them. To keep civil order, the two groups made a Compact with each other so that they could remain in agreement that they would share a common government. While they were still living on the ship, what has come to be called the Mayflower Compact was signed by 41 adult males including two indentured servants on November 11, 1620. Though very short and simple, the Mayflower Compact is seen by many historians and legal scholars as being the seed from which our Constitution later emerged.
By early December, the voyagers had decided to start a settlement at Plymouth. They began to build the first structure (a store house) on December 25th, 1620. They did not celebrate Christmas as we do now: it was a day of regular labor.
WHAT HAD HAPPENED DURING THE FIRST WINTER?
Anyone who has been on the Massachusetts Atlantic coast in December can only imagine what that first winter was like. Bradford describes that first winter as a time of starvation. John Carver was chosen to be the first governor, but he was dead by spring.
But that which was most sad and lamentable was, that in two or three months’ time half of their [the Separatists] company died, especially in January and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvy and other diseases which this long voyage and their inaccommodate condition had brought upon them. So as there dies sometimes two or three of a day in the foresaid time, that of 100 and odd persons, scarce fifty remained. And of these, in the time of most distress, there was but six or seven sound persons who to their great commendations, be it spoken, spared no pains night nor day, but with abundance of toil and hazard of their own health, fetched them wood, made them fires, dressed them meat, made their beds, washed their loathsome clothes, clothed and unclothed them. In a word, did all the homely and necessary offices for them which dainty and queasy stomachs cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cheerfully, without any grudging in the least, showing herein their true love unto their friends and brethren; a rare example and worthy to be remembered…And yet the Lord so upheld these persons as in this general calamity they were not at all infected either with sickness or lameness. And what I have said of these I may say of many others who died in this general visitation, and others yet living; that whilst they had health, yea, or any strength continuing, they were not wanting to any that had need of them. And I doubt not but their recompense is with the Lord.
[Bradford went on to describe the way the non-Separatists treated each other during this time, and it was not at all as cordial.]
Throughout the first winter, the passengers lived on the ship, where they suffered greatly from exposure, scurvy, and contagious disease. On March 16, 1621 – just as they were moving ashore – they received a very unexpected visit from a native named Samoset (“He Who Walks Over Much”) who greeted them in broken English. Samoset was a sagamore (subordinate chief) of an Eastern Abenaki tribe that resided in what now is Maine and had had contact with an English fishing camp on the Gulf of Maine. He had learned some English from fishermen who came to fish off Monhegan Island and knew most of the ship captains by name. Samoset was in the area serving as an ambassador/diplomat from the Abenaki to Massasoit and the Wampanoag confederacy and agreed to meet the English to discover who they were and to convey information to Massasoit. After speaking briefly with the English, Samoset promised to return with someone whose mastery of English was much better.
Samoset returned a few days later with the sole living member of the Patuxet tribe, Tisquanto or “Squanto”, who spoke excellent English and whose village had been on the land where Plimoth was being constructed. Squanto was born c. 1580 in Patuxet.
Squanto is believed to have been captured as a young man along the Maine coast in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth, who had been commissioned by Plymouth Company owner Sir Ferdinando Gorges to explore the coast of Maine and Massachusetts. Weymouth reportedly captured Squanto – along with four Penobscots – because he thought his financial backers in Britain might want to see some Indians.
The most widely-accepted theory of what happened next is that Squanto and 23 other natives boarded the ship of Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614, who had put them at ease with promises of trade before setting sail and then holding them captive on the ship. Once in Spain, it is thought that Squanto was taken in by Franciscan friars, taught Spanish, converted to Christianity, and was helped by the Franciscans to get to England where he worked and eventually connected with a merchant with business interests in Maine. Through his work, Squanto got to Maine and eventually returned to his native Patuxet in 1619, where he found all villagers dead from a contagious disease. Some say it was smallpox contracted from the English, and some say it was from a disease common to the local native tribes. Completely orphaned, Squanto connected with the Pokanoket tribe – another part of the Wampanoag nation – and Massasoit and began to use his skills in cross-cultural relations to his advantage. Once he had been introduced to the Mayflower English, he used his talents and influence to gain favors from both the natives and the English. Squanto taught the English how to grow corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, and avoid poisonous plants. He also was responsible for helping them to form a peaceful alliance with the local Wampanoag, an alliance that lasted for several years. This last point is important, as relations between other Europeans and native tribes in that era were often tainted with mistrust, intrigue, theft, and even murder.
By 1622, according to Separatist Edward Winslow, Squanto had begun to spread lies among both the Native Americans and the Pilgrims:
“His course was to persuade the Indians [that] he could lead us to peace or war at his pleasure, and would oft threaten the Indians, sending them word in a private manner we were intended shortly to kill them, that thereby he might get gifts for himself, to work their peace; so that whereas divers [people] were wont to rely on Massosoit for protection, and resort to his abode, now they began to leave him and seek after Tisquantum [Squanto.]”
Perhaps the best way to understand Squanto’s point of view is to take a closer look his name, Tisquantum, which according to The Smithsonian, was most likely not the name he was actually given at birth. Per The Smithsonian: “In that part of the Northeast, tisquantum referred to rage, especially the rage of manitou, the world-suffusing spiritual power at the heart of coastal Indians’ religious beliefs. When Tisquantum approached the Pilgrims and identified himself by that sobriquet, it was as if he had stuck out his hand and said, ‘Hello, I’m the Wrath of God.’”
Squanto’s wrath finally caused him to overstep his bounds when he falsely claimed that the confederate head sachem Massasoit had been plotting with enemy tribes, a lie that was quickly exposed. The Wampanoag people were enraged. Squanto was then forced to take shelter with the Pilgrims who, although they had also become wary of him (they had started to employ Hobbamock – a Pokanoket elite warrior – to keep Squanto in check), refused to betray their ally by handing him over to certain death among the Wampanoag. It proved to not matter, since Squanto succumbed to a fatal disease in November 1622 while visiting a Native-American settlement called Monomoy, near what is now modern day Pleasant Bay. As Bradford’s journal recalls:
“In this place Squanto fell sick of an Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose (which the Indians take for a symptom of [impending] death) and within a few days died there; desiring the Governor [Bradford] to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmens God in heaven, and bequeathed sundry of his things to the sundry of his English friends, as remembrance if his love, of whom they had a great loss.”
Squanto was later buried in an unmarked grave. To this day, no one knows exactly where his body rests.
Below is a list of all those who left England on the Mayflower. All those shown in red died at sea (*) or during the first several months “of the common infection”. The owner of the Mayflower died in 1621. By 1624 the ship was in ruins, having only ever made that one full voyage.
- Alden, John—ship’s crew, 21
- Allerton, Isaac—Separatist,34
- Mary Norris—wife, 30
- Bartholomew—son, 7
- Remember—son, 5
- Mary—daughter, 3
- Allerton, John—ship’s crew
- Billington, John—non-Separatist, 38
- Eleanor—wife, 33
- John—son, 16
- Francis—son, 14
- Bradford, William—Separatist, 30
- *Dorothy May—wife, 21
- Brewster, William—Separatist,54 (the faith leader)
- Mary—wife, 40
- Love—son, 9
- Wrestling—son, 6
- Richard More—ward, 6
- Mary More—ward, 4
- Britteridge, Richard—non-Separatist, 39
- Browne, Peter—non-Separatist, 20
- *Butten, William—servant to Samuel Fuller
- Carter, Robert—servant to William Mullins
- Carver, John—Separatist, 35
- Katherine White—wife, 30
- Jasper More—ward, 7
- *Chilton, James—Separatist, 64
- Chilton—wife, 58
- Mary—daughter, 13
- Clarke, Richard—non-Separatist
- Cooke, Francis—Separatist, 37
- John—son, 13
- Crackstone, John—Separatist, 45
- John—son, 20
- Dorothy—servant to John Carver, 18
- Doty, Edward—servant to the Hopkins family, 21
- Eaton, Francis—non-Separatist, 25
- Sarah—wife, 21
- Samuel—son, 1
- “Mr. Ely”—ship’s crew
- English, Thomas—ship’s crew
- Fletcher, Moses—Separatist, 55
- Fuller, Edward—Separatist,45
- Mrs. Fuller—wife, 35
- Samuel—son, 12
- Fuller, Samuel—Separatist, 40
- Gardiner, Richard—non-Separatist
- Goodman, John—Separatist
- Hooke, John—servant to the Allerton family, 13
- Holbeck, William—servant to the White family, under 21
- Hopkins, Stephen—non-Separatist, 38
- Elizabeth Fisher—wife, 25
- Constance—daughter, 14
- Giles—son, 12
- Damaris—daughter, 2
- Oceanus—son, born on the Mayflower
- Howland, John—servant to John Carver, 21
- Langmore, John—servant to the Martin family, under 21
- Latham, William—servant to John Carver, 11
- Leister, Edward—servant to the Hopkins family, over 21
- Margesson, Edmund—non-Separatist
- Martin, Christopher—non-Separatist, 38
- Mary Prower—wife, 35
- Solomon Prower—stepson, 14
- Minter, Desire—ward of John Carver, 15-18
- Mullins, William—non-Separatist, 52
- Alice—wife, 48
- Priscilla—daughter, 18
- Joseph—son, 14
- Priest, Degory—Separatist, 41
- Rigsdale, John—non-Separatist
- Alice Rigsdale—wife
- Rogers, Thomas—Separatist, 48
- Joseph Rogers—son, 17
- Soule, George—servant to Edward Winslow, 21–25
- Standish, Myles—non-Separatist, 23
- Rose Standish—wife, 27
- *Thompson, Edward—servant to the White family, under 21
- Tilley, Edward—Separatist, 32
- Agnes Cooper—wife, 35
- Henry Samson—nephew, 16
- Humility Cooper—niece, 3
- Tilley, John—Separatist, 49
- Joan Hurst—wife, 53
- Elizabeth—daughter, 13
- Tinker, Thomas—Separatist
- Mrs. Tinker—wife
- Boy Tinker—son, unknown
- Trevore, William—ship’s crew
- Turner, John—Separatist, 30
- Boy Turner—son, unknown
- Boy Turner—son, unknown
- Warren, Richard—non-Separatist
- White, William—Separatist, 30
- Susanna Jackson—wife, 25
- Resolved—son, 5
- Peregrine—son, born on Mayflower
- Wilder, Roger—servant to John Carver, under 21
- Williams, Thomas—Separatist
- Winslow, Edward—Separatist, 25 (he was married to Susanna White by November, 1621)
- Elizabeth Barker—wife, 23
- Ellen More—ward, 8
- Elias Story—ward, under 21
- Winslow, Gilbert—non-Separatist, 20
Some brought their family members, and some left family behind in England with the hope that they could be reunited in the future. Imagine the courage it took to cross the ocean with no promise of success and little knowledge of the terrain, conditions, native peoples, and so forth. Since the record of survival for those going from England to Virginia to settle had been abysmal (for example, Roanoke and Jamestown), the fact that half of the English survived through the first year and that they had very cordial relations with the local natives was almost miraculous and certainly a reason for deep gratitude.
WHEN AND WHY DID THANKSGIVING BECOME AN AMERICAN NATIONAL HOLIDAY?
Even in the 18th century, the concept of thanksgiving was not new to the Europeans who continued to arrive in America. Colonists often established Thank Days to mark certain occasions. These one-time events could occur at any time of the year and were usually more solemn than the Thanksgiving we observe today, emphasizing prayer and spiritual reflection.
As a General, George Washington had declared Thank Days for his troops during the Revolutionary War after significant battle victories. So it was not surprising when – as the first President of the United States – he issued a proclamation (October 3, 1789) designating for “the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving” to be held on “Thursday the 26th day of November,” 1789, marking the first national Thank Day.
Although Presidents for several decades after Washington did not follow Washington’s example, President Abraham Lincoln returned to the custom. He issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation on the same day (October 3) in 1863 and marked the same Thanksgiving Day (Thursday, November 26), thus setting the celebration of a national day of thanksgiving as the last Thursday of November. Lincoln’s proclamation was printed in newspapers and included the October 9, 1789 issue of the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser that had reported Washington’s proclamation.
Thanksgiving Day was finally made a legal holiday in 1941 when Congress named the fourth Thursday in November as our national day of thanks in answer to public outcry over President Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to prolong the Christmas shopping season by moving Thanksgiving from the traditional last Thursday to the third Thursday of November.
WHY IS THE 1621 THANKSGIVING IN PLYMOUTH STILL RELEVANT?
In our current political climate, there is an inclination among some to dismiss the importance – or even propriety – of this holiday because the original feast occurred in an era when there were many disagreements and even battles between English/European and native peoples. In fact, I would submit that the success of the 1621 Thanksgiving feast in the midst of so much misunderstanding and conflict is the reason we must remember and celebrate it. As with so many things American, the ideal is what we cling to and work toward despite many failings along the way. The 1621 Thanksgiving feast epitomizes many of our widely held and most lofty values. Here are just a few:
- The expression of gratitude to a Higher Being that transcends specific dogma or culture
- The celebration of life rising out of “ashes”
- The celebration of unity despite cultural diversity and the appreciation of each culture within the diversity
- The modelling of cooperation between native people and new immigrants committed to live peacefully in the adopted land
- The offering of practical gifts in the spirit of love and mutual support in any time of need or commemoration
- The coming together of independent communities through treaty, each with its own laws and rules for leadership and engagement
Besides its importance to our country, Thanksgiving is especially important to direct descendants of the passengers and of the Wampanoag. Thirty-seven of the original Mayflower passengers and crew have known descendants. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 35 million Mayflower descendants are living today in the United States and around the world; and approximately four to five thousand Wampanoag, living primarily in southeastern Massachusetts.
I had always heard that I was related to Governor Bradford, but it wasn’t until I began to research my family genealogy that I discovered that some of my own direct grandparents were, indeed, Mayflower passengers: William Bradford, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, and Thomas and Joseph Rogers. I am privileged to have a friend who lives in the Plymouth area and is descended from both the Mayflower passengers and their Wampanoag neighbors. Whether or not you have either or both in your ancestry, I highly recommend that you plan a visit to Plimoth-Patuxet, the re-created English village and Wampanoag settlement , and the reconstructed Mayflower II ship in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It’s an experience of our shared American history that you won’t soon forget.
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“Of Plymouth Plantation: 1629-1647, by William Bradford”, edited, with an introduction & notes by Samuel Eliot Morrison, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (I use the 20th printing, published in April 2000).
“Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth” (first published 1622), with an introduction by Dwight B. Heath, Applewood Books, Bedford MA, 1963.