How was the First Thanksgiving Different from Today’s Celebrations?

If you live in the U.S., you are probably looking forward to Thanksgiving with your family. Maybe Grandma or Mom will serve turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie and you’ll watch football on TV. Although the first Thanksgiving included food, sports, and a large number of people, it was also different from present day celebrations.

While Americans today see Thanksgiving as a time to reconnect with family members, the Pilgrims had a very basic reason for giving thanks in 1621—the fact that they managed to survive in a strange land. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, they had little idea what crops would thrive there. They planted acres of wheat and peas, neither of which survived.

The Pilgrims’ survival depended on the aid of a Native American named Squanto. He taught them how to plant a new crop—corn–so that by harvest they had twenty acres of it. The colony’s governor William Bradford wrote that the Pilgrims “began to plant their own corn, in which service Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both the manner how to set it, and after how to dress and tend it.” Squanto also told them how to fertilize their crop: “Also he told them, except they got fish and set with it in these old grounds it would come to nothing.” The first harvest wasn’t huge, but the Pilgrims could double each person’s food ration by adding corn.


Chief Massasoit Sculpture Kansas City, MO

As a result of the successful harvest, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate. The colonists invited Squanto and members of neighboring Native American tribes, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. One colonist, Edward Winslow, described “many Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.” While Americans today celebrate for one day, the Pilgrims feasted for three days! The menu was large and included fowl (duck and goose) shot by the colonists and deer brought by the Native Americans. Seafood, corn bread, and greens were also served. For dessert, the participants ate wild fruit. Although turkey was available to the colonists, there is no evidence that it was eaten on the first Thanksgiving. There was no pumpkin pie, either, though pumpkins were available in their raw form.

Sports and games also were a part of the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims did not play football, but they engaged in other games with the Native Americans. They played a game similar to croquet and competed in running and jumping games. The English showed off their skill with guns, and the Native Americans showed their talent for shooting with bows and arrows.

When you see your relatives on Thanksgiving, see if they can guess what food was eaten and what sports played during the first Thanksgiving.


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