Thanksgiving History

As we approach Thanksgiving 2022, it is time to again set the Thanksgiving History record straight. The Pilgrims were not the first Americans to have a period of thanks for an abundant harvest, nor did they invite the Natives to join them. Many Indigenous North American communities had their own traditions of giving thanks for a fall harvest centuries before the Mayflower sailed into  Cape Cod Bay.

The Natives who gathered with the English settlers in the fall of 1622 thought they were coming to their aid. Only a few months earlier, in March 1622, the two communities had worked out the terms of a treaty. It stipulated that if either party were in trouble, the other would come to help. When the Natives heard the English shooting off their guns as part of their celebration, they thought they were being attacked. When they learned the English were having their own thanksgiving ceremony, they left to get more food and returned to help them celebrate.

Fall 1620

In November of 1620, the Mayflower was still at sea, where it had been sailing since September. Some of the passengers had been on the ship since July. The start of the cross-Atlantic journey was delayed three times to repair leaks in the companion ship, the Speedwell. The third time turned out not to be the charm, but rather the conclusion of attempts to make the Speedwell seaworthy.

Finally, on September 6 – or 16 – depending on which calendar you prefer – the Mayflower was at sea at last. There was no thanksgiving celebration that fall as there was no harvest, or crops, or a place identified where crops might be planted. Their first fall in the New (to them) World, the Pilgrims reached into the bottom of their food barrels in search of anything to eat.

Other Thanksgiving Traditions

Indigenous people in North America had well-developed traditions around celebrating and offering thanks for successful harvests. In the Northeast, Harvest Time typically began in late August and continued into October and even November. It is quite likely the Natives who discovered the half-starved English settlers wandering around Cape Cod in modern Massachusetts had just wrapped up their annual tradition of showing their appreciation for a bountiful harvest.

Some of the earth’s bounty they gathered and set aside for food through the winter included acorns, beans, birch bark, blackberries, blueberries, cattails, corn, fish, grapes, honey, assorted meats, milkweed, peas, pumpkins, sassafras, squash, sweet potatoes, and walnuts.

Work Now, Eat Later

The Natives would sun-dry or smoke-dry as much food as possible to preserve it for the long winter. They then hung the food in lodges or buried it in food stores. The pilgrims came upon some of the buried corn supplies as they explored the Cape Cod area. Finding and taking it back to the Mayflower saved them from starvation their first winter.

During the harvest season, Natives also worked on preparing their homes for winter. The lingering warmer early weather made working on repairs to wigwams and longhouses easier. They could gather pliable samplings to use to repair sections of their lodges or bend them for future use. They gathered and stored pond grass, cattails and bark to work on during the cold winter. They also gathered assorted plants, such as cattails and moss, to improve insulation in both their housing and clothing.

Celebrate Success

During this season, they held joyous celebrations that included giving thanks through music, singing, dancing, gifts, and feasting.  The Celebrating/Thanksgiving events might last for four to seven days, and perhaps even longer. It was a break from the hard work of preparing for the winter just around the corner.

Then they settled in for the annual long hard, and often bitterly brutal cold winter. That is where they likely were as the newly arrived English settlers were exploring and hunting for the ideal place to establish their new settlement. The two cultures would meet face to face when the spring sun warmed the land, and the settlers began preparing their own gardens for their first harvest celebration to follow in the fall of 1622. Governor Bradford announced a break from the back-breaking toil to thank God for a successful first harvest in their new home.

Some information in this blog comes from an article in PowWow by Jamie K. Oxendine, a member of the Lumber tribe of North Carolina. He is the Native American Liaison and Education Consultant for Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures, my historical novel about the events leading up to our traditional Thanksgiving, is now two years old. I’d be happy to speak to your book club or organization about this fascinating history. Contact me at HowWiseThen to make arrangements. You can sign up to receive weekly blogs and/or a monthly newsletter there as well. If you enjoyed this article, share it with a friend.

Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures covers the Pilgrim’s escape from England and their interactions with the Pokanoket people. Available wherever books are sold in paperback, eBook, and audio. (Supporting local Indie Bookshops)
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  1. Hello, your article was fascinating!! I just recently discovered that I am a direct descendant of Mary and Elder William Brewster through their oldest son Jonathan!! Can you give me any advice how I can officially prove to the Mayflower Society of this claim? Thank you, Ella Sink

  2. Hello Ella – well, that makes us cousins. What I know about joining the Mayflower Society is that it takes a lot of research and a fair amount of money. My mother, a reference librarian, did the work for our family when I was in high school and she was retiring – back in the 60s. I did not join with her at the time – one of my regrets in life. When I wanted to join a few years ago while I was doing research for Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures, I learned that my birth certificate proving my connection to her, and through her application all the way back to Elder William and Mary was not sufficient. I had to come up with birth, death, and marriage certificates for current and past generations back to my grandparents. At that point I subscribed to their quarterly magazine (excellent resource) and decided not to bother with the rest. I’m working on a biography of Mary Brewster now. It is scheduled for publication this spring, if we can get it ready by then. There is an Elder William Brewster society that was much easier to join. I recommend it.

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