The Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving
On September 16 in 1620, the Mayflower left Plymouth, England. The ship’s 102 passengers and around 30 crew members were comprised of religious separatists known as Puritans who were seeking a new home where they could freely practice their faith, and other 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 on November 21 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. Of the original 102 passengers, only 44 lived to see their first New England spring. The crew suffered a similar fate.
The Pilgrims were aware of the natives 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.”
The second visit from Samoset included five other warriors. It so happened to be a Sunday, so the Pilgrims refused to conduct any business. Unperturbed, the natives happily joined the Pilgrims in their day of rest and casual entertainment with singing and dancing, and sharing of their food. Samoset stayed for two days before departing, again with gifts (a hat, shoes and stockings, and a shirt) from the Pilgrims.
On March 22, Samoset returned for the third time, bringing with him Tisquantum (Squanto) of the Patuxet tribe, who 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 in total. The big development from this third visitation was arranging a conference with Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag. William Bradford described that meeting in depth, this a small snippet–
“…Captain Standish and Master Williamson met the king (Massasoit) at the brook, with half a dozen musketeers. They saluted him and he them, so one going over, the one on the one side, and the other on the other, conducted him to a house…where we placed a green rug and three or four cushions. Then instantly came our governor with drum and trumpet after him, and some few musketeers. After salutations, our governor kissing his hand, the king kissed him, and so they sat down. The governor called for some strong water, and drunk to him, and he drunk a great draught that made him sweat all the while after; he called for a little fresh meat, which the king did eat willingly, and did give his followers.
The Wamapanoag and Pilgrims established clear rules of engagement and trade, the main thrust being to treat each other equally, honestly, in peace, and with mutual respect and decency. Additionally, they agreed to aid each other in armed defense, if necessary, against neighboring tribes that were not so friendly. A formal treaty of alliance was signed the summer.
After this initial period, Squanto would remain with the Pilgrims a great portion of the time, serving as a liaison and teacher. He is mentioned numerous times in Plymouth Colony records. Samoset, conversely, is never again noted in any Pilgrim interaction. Tomorrow’s blog will focus on both of these special men who are key players in the story of the first Thanksgiving.
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 led by Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, hunt animals for food and pelts, which plants to avoid, and so much more.
By November of 1621 the Pilgrims were thriving, and the first corn harvest proved successful. Plymouth Governor William Bradford initiated a celebratory feast and invited their Native American friends, including 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 was tenuous at times and fraught with occasional strife, but would endure for more than fifty years.
In conclusion and for the record, I flatly reject the very modern desire to interpret every aspect of our past as “white man evil” and to cast a dark cloud of hate and negativity. The relationship between the natives and Pilgrims wasn’t all roses and unicorns. I have never heard anyone claim that. In fact, the harsh realities of the situation for the Pilgrims is precisely why holding a feast and giving thanks to God less than a year after witnessing nearly 60 members of their community die is so incredibly moving and beautiful.
I’ve also never imagined that every last Indian was warm and fuzzy (any more than every last Pilgrim probably was) and that they were filled with delight at these strange people invading their shores. The Pilgrims weren’t the first white man seen, obviously, and if not openly hostile to the Wampanoag, there were lots of reasons not to trust them. I’ll cover that a bit more in tomorrow’s post on Samoset and Squanto. In fact, there is some debate as to whether the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag or if the natives crashed the party, so to speak. Yet, does it matter? They were welcomed, added food to the feast, and the result was a memorable event that is honored four hundred years later!
So I reject any darkening of this historical event or of the present day we celebrate to honor such bravery, perseverance, friendship, and above all, faith in God. For a great and easy read on the truth behind the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, I highly recommend the new book by Steve Deace.