The First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a week away, so time to explore some history. How does that sound? Here goes!

In September 1620, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers. They were comprised of religious separatists seeking a new home to freely practice their faith, and individuals lured by the promise of prosperity and land in the New World. The ocean crossing lasted sixty-six days and was fraught with hazards. They made land near the tip of Cape Cod, far north of their intended destination at the mouth of the Hudson River. After resting for a month, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, and it was there the Pilgrims established the village at Plymouth.

Many colonists stayed on the ship that first brutal winter. All of them suffered from exposure, scurvy, and outbreaks of contagious disease. Half of the Mayflower’s original passengers did not live to see their first New England spring.

The remaining settlers moved ashore in March of 1621, and very soon after welcomed an Abenaki Indian named Samoset, who greeted them in English! He returned, along with another Native American, Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe.

Who was Squanto?

Thanksgiving_SquantoTisquantum, his Patuxet name, was born sometime in the late 1580s. There is some speculation that he was abducted in 1605 by Captain George Weymouth, taken to England, and taught English to be a guide. He then returned to New England, in 1614, with Captain John Smith. This part, however, is vague and refuted by many. What is known for sure is that Squanto, as he was named by the English, was kidnapped (again?) in 1614 by Englishman Thomas Hunt, a lieutenant under Captain John Smith. Hunt traveled to Spain and attempted to sell his native prisoners into slavery, but several local friars saved the men. Squanto convinced the friars to release him so he could find his way home. First he sailed to England, taking a position as a shipbuilder under John Slany, who in 1618 brought Squanto with him to Newfoundland. Unable to obtain further passage to America, Squanto returned to England. Finally, in 1619, Squanto joined an exploratory expedition and made his way back to America. Tragically, Squanto found that his tribe, and many other Native Americans, had been decimated by European diseases a year earlier. He was taken in by the Abenaki, fortunately for the Pilgrims.

Weakened by malnutrition and illness, the Pilgrims may not have survived is not for the assistance of Squanto and the Wampanoag and Abenaki tribes. The natives taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, which plants to avoid, and so on. The alliance forged between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag would endure for more than fifty years.

By November the Pilgrims were thriving, and the first corn harvest proved successful. Plymouth Governor William Bradford initiated a celebratory feast, invited their Native American friends, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The feast to give thanks to God for their survival and bounteous harvest lasted for three-days.

No record remains of the exact foods served on the menu. Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow wrote in his journal that Governor Bradford sent four men on a “fowling” mission in preparation for the event, and that the Wampanoag guests arrived bearing five deer. Historians suggest many of the dishes used traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. It is known that the Pilgrims did not have an oven, and the sugar supply had dwindled, so pies and cakes probably weren’t enjoyed. There are references to fish of various types, including shellfish, and lots of vegetables and grains. Did they eat a turkey or two? We do not know. It is possible a turkey was one of the fowls hunted down, but if they did serve turkey, it was not as the centerpiece to the meal.


What happened to Squanto?

Squanto bust
Bust of Squanto

Squanto served as guide and translator between the English and Native tribes. His fluency in English and familiarity with their culture made him invaluable, a fact he eventually exploited, so the history goes. One theory is that he abused his power, playing both sides against each other for personal gain. At one point he was imprisoned and faced execution, saved when a new ship arrived and once again his services were required. Whether his deceptions were true or based on fear and poor relations between the various groups is unclear. Whatever the case, Squanto’s dealings with the two groups of people eventually led him to be distrusted by both parties. In 1622, while on his way back from a meeting with the Wampanoag, he fell ill with fever. Historians speculate the distrustful tribe may have poisoned him, but this will never be known. Squanto died a few days later. His passing was a tremendous loss for the Pilgrims.

Interesting, yes? More Thanksgiving history coming as a follow-up to what happened in the years after.






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