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.


The Voyage of the Mayflower


You probably know that the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Maybe you’ve been told that they left England to gain religious freedom. But Plymouth was not where they planned to live, and the passengers on the Mayflower had many reasons for wanting to leave England.

One group of Pilgrims, who wanted to eliminate some of the religious rituals from the English Church which they felt were unnecessary, left England for Holland. They settled in the town of Leyden, where they expected to stay. Although they could practice their religion as they wished, life in Holland was rough. Most of the Pilgrims were farmers, but they now lived in an urban town. Since they did not have a trade or speak the Dutch language, their jobs did not pay well. Even William Bradford, the future governor of Plymouth, was only an apprentice to a silk weaver.

After over a decade of living in near poverty, the Pilgrims decided to move. William Bradford wrote, “the place they had thoughts on was some of those vast and unpeopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation.” The Pilgrims heard of the success of the Jamestown colony in Virginia where colonists profited from growing tobacco so they planned to sail there. Forty-six Pilgrims left Holland on a small ship called the Speedwell in July 1620. Later they met up with a bigger ship, the Mayflower, which brought emigrants from England who would join the group. Not all of these men and women were Pilgrims; some didn’t care about religious freedom and sought only to make money in the New World.

The Speedwell kept leaking and two groups repeatedly stopped so it could be repaired. Finally they decided that the Speedwell couldn’t make the trip to America. Everyone who could fit on the Mayflower did so; others returned to England because there was not enough room. On September 6, the Mayflower set sail again.

Between the passengers and crew, the Mayflower carried about 140 people. Although better accommodations were available for the officers and wealthier passengers, most people slept in hammocks or on beds of canvas filled with straw. When they felt like eating, bacon, biscuits, and smoked fish were on board. Although they brought cabbages, onions, and turnips, they eventually ran out of vegetables and ate boiled mush and oatmeal instead.

The passengers on the Mayflower probably didn’t feel very hungry since, according to Bradford, the ship encountered “many…cross winds and met with many fierce storms, with which the ship was shaken.” Finally on November 10, the passengers sighted land off of Cape Cod. Although they planned to land near the Hudson River, the ship encountered more storms and so they went back to the Cape.

The colonists set foot at Plymouth on December 11. Bradford wrote, “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean.” However, it was winter in Massachusetts and the passengers of the Mayflower would have more trials ahead as they tried to survive in an unfamiliar land.