Despite the myth that has grown up around it, little is known about the first Thanksgiving, believed to have been celebrated after the Pilgrims survived their first year in the New World. More is known about the Pilgrims, the Christian separatists who left England and first settled in what is now Plymouth, Mass. Yet the mythology around their journey and early struggles seems to have eclipsed the historical facts.
“Mayflower,” a richly interesting book by Nathaniel Philbrick of Nantucket, Mass., chronicles the events leading up to the Pilgrims leaving England, the conflict they faced by having to join with mercenaries in their quest for a new home, their tragic mistakes in preparing for settling in and adapting to New England life, and their final colonization of the region. “Mayflower,” which was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history, distinguishes itself from other books on the subject by examining the Pilgrims within the context of their difficult but vital relationship with the native Wampanoag tribe.
That relationship, especially between Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow and Wampanoag Chief Massasoit, sustained the settlers in the first decades. But the failure of the next generation to understand and appreciate the fragile nature of the symbiotic relationship led to the bloodiest conflict ever seen in New England. That tragic war, which left the tribe devastated, set the tone for English-Indian relations, Mr. Philbrick postulates.
Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford wrote in his “Of Plymouth Plantation” that after the settlers had “gathered the fruit of our labors,” he declared it was time to “rejoice together … after a more special manner.”
Mr. Philbrick writes: “We do not know the exact date of the celebration we now call the First Thanksgiving, but it was probably in late September or early October, soon after their crop of corn, squash, beans, barley and peas had been harvested. It was also a time during which Plymouth Harbor played host to a tremendous number of migrating birds, particularly ducks and geese.”
Gov. Bradford “ordered four men to go out ‘fowling.’ It took only a few hours for Plymouth’s hunters to kill enough ducks and geese to feed the settlement for a week,” Mr. Philbrick notes.
“The term Thanksgiving, first applied in the 19th century, was not used by the Pilgrims themselves. For the Pilgrims a thanksgiving was a time of spiritual devotion. Since just about everything the Pilgrims did had religious overtones, there was certainly much about the gathering in the fall of 1621 that would have made it a proper Puritan thanksgiving. [T]here was also much about the gathering that was similar to a traditional English harvest festival — a secular celebration that dated back to the Middle Ages in which villagers ate, drank, and played games.
“Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other’s hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on. Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement with five freshly killed deer. Even if all the Pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages — stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown — simmered invitingly,” Mr. Philbrick speculates.
The feast also included a “good store of wild turkeys,” Gov. Bradford noted, and Mr. Philbrick believes fish may also have been part of the meal.
“Neither Bradford nor Winslow mention it [in their accounts], but the First Thanksgiving coincided with what was, for the Pilgrims, a new and startling phenomenon: the turning of the green leaves of summer to the incandescent yellows, reds and purples of a New England autumn,” Mr. Philbrick writes. “In Britain, the cloudy fall days and warm nights cause the autumn colors to be muted and lackluster. In New England, on the other hand, the profusion of sunny fall days and cool but not freezing nights unleashes the colors … .
“The First Thanksgiving marked the conclusion of a remarkable year. Eleven months earlier the Pilgrims had arrived at the tip of Cape Cod, fearful and uninformed. They had spent the next month alienating and angering every Native American they happened to come across. By all rights, none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive … . That it had worked out differently was a testament not only to the Pilgrims’ grit, resolve and faith, but to their ability to take advantage of extraordinary opportunity. During the winter of 1621, the survival of the English settlement had been in the balance. Massasoit’s decision to offer them assistance had saved the Pilgrims’ lives in the short term … .
“For the Pilgrims, some of whom had slept in a wigwam and all of whom had enjoyed eating and drinking with the Indians during that First Thanksgiving, these were not a despicable pack of barbarians (even if some of their habits, such as their refusal to wear clothes, struck them as ‘savage’); these were human beings, much like themselves — ‘very trust[worth]y, quick of apprehension, ripe witted and just,’ according to Edward Winslow.”
That regard for the locals would not persist, and for their part, the natives came to regret ceding land to the settlers. We who live in New England especially can trace our roots to the events of those few years. Though bloody conflict followed, that brief moment when two peoples gave thanks is a tradition worth remembering.