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The First Thanksgiving, Sort Of

June 2024
2min read

Strictly speaking, the high-spirited gathering was a harvest festival, not a thanksgiving.


The event that Americans commonly call the "First Thanksgiving" was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in October or November 1621. Painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe

Sometime in the fall of 1621, possibly in November, the settlers at Plymouth Plantation held their first thanksgiving feast. After arriving the previous fall and enduring a harrowing winter, the fifty or so surviving Pilgrims had planted a successful crop of corn, along with “indifferent good” barley and some peas that withered on their stems. To celebrate the harvest, they invited over their neighbors—Chief Massasoit and around ninety of his men.

The menu included fowl (turkey, quail, ducks, and geese all abounded in the area), venison (which the Indians provided), and probably fish and shellfish. Boiled pumpkin and corn cakes and pudding are also likely candidates. These may have been supplemented with wild nuts and berries, but probably not cranberries, since the settlers had no sugar to sweeten them. They lacked wheat flour and dairy products as well. The feast lasted three days, and in a tradition that still continues, the women did the cooking while the men smoked, drank, and played games.

Strictly speaking, the high-spirited gathering was a harvest festival, not a thanksgiving, which would have been solemn and prayerful. The plantation’s first official day of thanksgiving was not proclaimed until July 1623 to mark the end of a long drought. In February 1630 the Pilgrims’ northern neighbors, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay, held a thanksgiving day of their own after the arrival of ships bearing supplies and additional colonists. The following year saw Massachusetts’s first autumn thanksgiving.

The menu included fowl (turkey, quail, ducks, and geese all abounded in the area), venison (which the Indians provided), and probably fish and shellfish.

Shortly after the Pilgrims’ celebration, on November 11, the ship Fortune dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor and disgorged thirty-five settlers. Their number increased to thirty-six the next day when Martha Ford, whose husband had died in transit, gave birth to a son. The debarkation inaugurated another hardy New England tradition: snootiness toward later arrivals. Gov. William Bradford sniffed that “most of them were lusty yong men, and many of them wild enough, who litle considered whither or aboute what they wente.” He conceded that “the plantation was glad of this addition of strenght, but could have wished that many of them had been in beter condition” and grumbled about having to share meager provisions (the Fortune brought none of its own). Only a third of the Fortune party adhered to the Pilgrims’ religious beliefs; the rest were “strangers,” which may account for Bradford’s disdain.

Despite their deficiencies, the “late commers” were fed, outfitted, lodged, and set to work alongside their venerable counterparts. When Christmas came around, many in the fresh-off-the-boat contingent insisted on taking the day off, which was not a Pilgrim custom. Bradford grudgingly agreed to indulge the greenhorns’ eccentricity “till they were better informed,” but when he later discovered them playing in the street, he angrily ordered them indoors.

Meanwhile, the Fortune was sent home on December 13 with five hundred pounds’ worth of lumber, “Saxefras,” and beaver and otter skins bought from the Indians. Near the English Channel pirates seized the ship, escorted it to the Ile d’Yeu off the French coast, and removed everything of value, leaving behind some apparently worthless papers. Thanks to the Gallic buccaneers’ forbearance, the Plymouth Plantation’s amended charter survived, along with an acrimonious letter from Bradford to Thomas Weston, the colony’s main financier. Also preserved was a series of articles written by settlers, which were published in London in 1622. The resulting pamphlet, now known as Mourt’s Relation, contained much valuable information about the colony’s early months, including the text of the Mayflower Compact; a sales pitch and instructions for potential emigrants; and —most important to the schoolchildren, cartoonists, and editorial writers of today—the only surviving account of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving dinner.

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