These are the words that one of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, wrote about the holiday we call the First Thanksgiving in 1621, over 400 years ago. It had been a terrible first winter after the Mayflower arrived the previous Fall. About half of the Pilgrims had died of disease. Only 52 remained . . . but they resolved to move forward, building houses, and making a new
community in New England. They had become friends with the Indian natives nearby and a
special English speaking Indian, Squanto, had shown them how to fertilize the soil and plant
corn—a crop that would grow well. After all the work of planting, cultivating, and harvesting
their crops, their Governor, William Bradford, had said it was time to celebrate!
The Pokanoket Indians had been harvesting their corn too . . . just on the other side of Towne Brook from Plimoth and the two groups brought their food offerings to the small Colony site to feast and share together. The Pilgrims had been hunting for fowl (duck, geese, swan, pheasant, or some of the numerous wild turkeys that lived in the area). Native American hunters brought 5 deer and also many, many visitors! In addition to the Pilgrims there was Chief Massasoit and 90 of his braves. These Pokanoket neighbors probably brought their wives and children too. Other Native groups in the area had just signed a peace treaty with the English in September . . . some of them may have visited as well. THAT is a LOT of people to cook for! With only four adult women (mothers) still alive after the winter disease, these Pilgrim women were probably grateful for the help of any of the other women and girls who joined in with food preparation.
They would need quite a bit of food, because Winslow writes that their celebration would go on for THREE DAYS! He tells us that they filled their time with “entertainment” with many
“recreations” including “exercising our arms” (shooting demonstrations). It isn’t hard to
imagine that they probably played games like tag races, sang songs, shared dances, and
listened to stories. The Natives who understood English, like Squanto, Hobbomock and
Tokamahamen, would have been very busy helping translate for the English and Pokanokets
that were trying to converse back and forth. There were no English houses big enough to put
everyone inside, so we can assume that many of the celebrators were outside in groups,
around fires and cooking pits, and sitting together too.
A modern reenactment of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts Courtesy of Plimoth Patuxet Museums
This was the celebration we now call the First Thanksgiving. As we, the very descendants of (fill in name of your Mayflower ancestor), enjoy our Thanksgiving feast let’s take time to remember the legacy these ancestors have left us. They’ve taught us that it is good to remember our blessings and be grateful. It’s good to gather as a family and share our love and respect for each other. And It’s also good to appreciate our neighbors and communities and share with them. This Thanksgiving holiday is, indeed, a “special manner of rejoicing.”
Member at Large 2 (West)
General Society of Mayflower Descendants