The First Thanksgiving
In September 1620, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, carrying 102 passengers. They were comprised of Puritans, religious separatists seeking a new home where they could 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.
Most of the colonists stayed on the ship that first brutal winter. Yet whether on the ship or dwelling in the ramshackle village, all of them suffered from exposure, scurvy, and outbreaks of contagious disease. Roughly half of the Mayflower’s original passengers did not live to see their first New England spring.
The Pilgrims were aware of the native watching from afar, but no contact was made during the winter of 1620/21. With the coming of spring, the surviving colonists were few in number and severely weakened by malnutrition and illness. They feared the lurking natives, well aware of their vulnerability. Nevertheless, with no choice, the settlers moved ashore in March of 1621 and a militia was established to defend the settlement as best they could if the natives attacked.
Unbeknownst to the Pilgrims, the observing men from the Wampanoag (meaning “People of the First Light”) Confederacy were just as uncertain and wary of the Pilgrims! Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote in his journal:
“… the Indians came skulking about them, and would sometimes show themselves aloof off, but when any approached near them, they would run away; and once they stole away (the Pilgrim’s) tools where they had been at work and were gone to dinner.”
On March 16, 1621 the Pilgrims were shocked when an Abenaki warrior named Samoset boldly walked into their settlement and said, in broken English, “Welcome Englishmen, Welcome!” One Pilgrim diarist described Samoset’s arrival as follows:
“He very boldly came all alone, and along the houses, straight to the rendezvous; where we intercepted him, not suffering him to go in, as undoubtedly he would out of his boldness.”
On March 22, Samoset returned with Squanto of the Patuxet tribe, who also spoke English far superior to Samoset. As far as can be deduced from the records, the two men stayed with the Pilgrims for two or three days. After this initial period, Squanto would remain a liaison and teacher with numerous mentions in Plymouth records. Samoset, conversely, is never again noted in any Pilgrim interaction.
We can only speculate, but it seems inevitable the Pilgrims would have perished in time if not for Squanto translating and facilitating assistance from the Wampanoag and Abenaki tribes. That first year, 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 much more.
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.
The alliance forged between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag would endure for more than fifty years.