Facts About the First Thanksgiving

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The Mayflower left England September 1620 and headed for a land where the 102 passengers would be free to worship the dictates of their faith. These pilgrims established their new home on the site of an old Indian village. As they struggled to survive, local Indians, including Squanto, the last member of the Patuxet tribe, proved invaluable. To celebrate a good harvest in thanks to God and the Native Americans, the pilgrims held what has become known as the first American thanksgiving celebration.


The pilgrims, persecuted in England, settled for a time in Holland. But when their children began picking up Dutch ways and the native language, the Separatists chose to travel to the new land of freedom and opportunity. During the first winter, more than half of them died. When spring came, they met English-speaking Squanto and forged a treaty with the Wampanoag tribal confederation of which Squanto's tribe belonged, that lasted for 50 years. The Native Americans helped the pilgrims survive and taught them how to live on the new land and thrive. That year's harvest was bountiful. The pilgrims were grateful for the assistance of Squanto and the other Native Americans, leading to the harvest celebration in November 1621, to which they invited their new friends.

The People

The pilgrims were English separatists who founded the Plymouth colony in 1620. These Separatists left the established church of England over matters of faith and doctrine, believing the Church of England had deviated from the purity of the gospel message. Persecuted for their faith, they sought a place to worship freely. They were able to secure passage on the Mayflower. After a long, uncomfortable voyage, they landed in the New World, for which they were ill-equipped. That first winter, more than half of the voyagers died, including many of the leaders. Governor duties came to William Bradford, and after a good harvest, it was Governor Bradford who proclaimed the fall harvest celebration. He invited their neighbors and Wampanoag friends, especially chief Massasoit, who brought 90 braves to the feast.

The Food

Food served during the three-day festival was nothing like the dinner table menu many are used to today on Thanksgiving Day. The pilgrim tables didn't overflow with desserts of cakes and pies, partly because their sugar supplies would have been depleted. Edward Winslow, the pilgrim chronicler, wrote in a journal that the governor sent a contingent of men to hunt fowl for the feast. The Native Americans arrived with five deer to be dressed, cooked and served for the feast. Winslow's journal also lists other food eaten, such as fish and cornmeal, at what later became known as the first American Thanksgiving Day celebration. It is thought that the pilgrims used only knives and spoons to eat their feast, assuming that they brought the utensils with them from Europe.

Thanksgiving Celebration

The pilgrims gave thanks to the Native Americans for all their assistance in helping the colony survive and to God for leading them to the new land. That celebration and the day of Thanksgiving two years later began the practice, especially in New England states, of holding a day of thanksgiving each year. Finally, in 1863, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a recognized national holiday.