First Thanksgiving

The “First” Thanksgiving Was No Picnic

The traditional Thanksgiving story about the Pilgrims and the Native Americans coming together for three days of feasting is as much fiction as fact. For starters, there are credible claims of other thanksgiving celebrations among European immigrants that predate the 1621 version taught in many schools. The Natives had their own rituals around marking the harvest season. The New England Natives and the Europeans did come together approximately a year after the English arrived on the Mayflower. There was much to celebrate. The previous decade was wrought with staggering challenges for both groups.

Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower less than half were part of the Pilgrim congregation from Leiden, Holland. The Pilgrims were English refugees who immigrated to Holland in 1608 to escape persecution and possibly execution. First known as Separatists, they formed their own congregation that challenged the practices of the Established Church of England. The Puritans wanted to purify the Church. The Separatists, or Pilgrims, wanted to establish their own first-century style Christian community. They immigrated to Holland for that purpose. In 1620 they cast their fate with English investors sending settlers to colonize the New World.

Pilgrims and Strangers

The Pilgrims referred to the other settlers as Strangers. Some of these were assigned to the group by the investors who wanted more people working on their behalf. Some signed on for personal reasons. The investors planned to profit from the fish and furs settlers would send back to England. More settlers, more profits. Though they were less than thrilled with the Strangers joining them, the small Separatist community needed more people along to help cover the cost of trip.

The Mayflower finally set sail from Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620 after two failed attempts to leave earlier in the summer. A companion ship, the Speedwell, brought the Separatists from Holland to meet the Mayflower at Southamptonwith the Stranger passengers already on board. The Speedwell was supposed to stay with the settlers to facilitate their trade and fishing efforts when the Mayflower returned. After the Speedwell returned to harbor twice for repairs that ship abandoned the journey. The Passengers and cargo from the Speedwell were added to the passengers, cargo, and around thirty crewmen already on the Mayflower.

Storms and Sightings of Land

Their late departure meant they crossed the Atlantic during the fall with rather rough seas. During one particularly violent storm the main mast beam snapped in two. High waves combined with strong waves tossed the ship around and frigid rain soaked everyone. Yet somehow a combination of passengers and crewmen managed to repair the beam, using the giant screw the passengers brought to help build their new homes.

The ship crew was headed for the mouth of the Hudson River, but first sighted land off the coast of Cape Cod on November 11 – after over two months at sea. Rather than fight more treacherous seas, Captain Christopher Jones sailed to the inside of the tip of the Cape, They dropped anchor off the coast of what is now Provincetown and stayed there six weeks. First they had to reassemble the shallop they’d dissembled to fit in the cargo hold. It took nearly two weeks to do that. Then expedition parties set out in search of a suitable place to establish their settlement.

Lost and Found

The exploration party found what they considered the perfect place at Plymouth. The site was an abandoned Native American village. Most of the previous residents died in an epedemic a few years earlier. The rest moved further inland or weren’t there because they were captured by Europeans and taken to Spain as slaves. One of them – Tisquantum, or Squanto – eventually made it back and introduced the English to Sachem (Chief) Massasoit the following spring.

In the years leading up to the arrival of the Mayflower thousands of Natives all along the East coast died from diseases introduced by earlier explorers and traders. Figures on how many Natives died from the diseases introduced by Europeans vary, but some estimate as many as 90% of the Native population died because they had no immunity to these imported scourges. The Mayflower passengers and crew survived in part because they found the food supplies left behind when epidemics turned village after village into ghost towns.

When the expedition men reported finding the deserted Native village that they renamed Plymouth, Captain Jones sailed the Mayflower across the harbor. He dropped anchor again, a mile off shore; as close as the ship could get due to the low water levels. They anchored just in time for Christmas, but the Pilgrims didn’t observe it; for them it was just another workday. Captain Jones kept the Mayflower in the harbor until May. The ship served as home base while the settlers started felling trees to build the Common House. Work progressed slowly. Some of the men spent their time hunting to replenish low food supplies. Frequent rain or snow made work difficult and some days impossible. Many were too sick to work. Death was a constant companion.

Overcoming Hardships and Setbacks

One passenger died shortly before they first sighted land and was buried at sea. Dorothy Bradford died while they were anchored off the coast of today’s Provincetown. She fell overboard while William was off exploring with other men. William Bradford served as their Governor for many years and much of what we know about this history comes from his detailed account of their lives. During that first winter forty-five men, women and children died from a combination of scurvy, the ill effects of extreme temperatures and inadequate food and shelter. Many of the Mayflower crew also fell sick, and about half of them died, including the cook and three of the four quartermasters.

By May the settlers had built the Common House, a storage shed, and seven houses. Before he and his diminished crew set sail, Captain Jones offered to take anyone who wanted to go, back to England. They all stayed. The Mayflower made the return voyage in one month.

Giving Thanks

By the 1621 fall harvest only fifty-three of the original 102 passengers were still alive. Only five adult women survived to pull together their first harvest celebration. The Natives and the English worked out a treaty the previous March, stating they would protect and help one another if either group were to be attacked by any other group. It may be that the Natives came around initially because they heard the gunfire from the English celebration activities. It was obvious there was not enough food for the estimated ninety Natives who showed up. So the Natives went hunting and added considerabe additional resources. Massasoit’s people lived some distance from Plymouth, so it was only logical they would stay to rest and dine before heading back to their own villages. However the two groups got together, they apparently did share several days of feasting, games and celebrating the fact they were still alive.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It seems less commercialized than some of the other holidays. The more I learn about what transpired back in the 1600’s, the more grateful I am we have established this as a national holiday. Whether your ancestors were Native Americans, refugees, slaves or immigrants, on this Thanksgiving Day, let us celebrate that they got here and established our family trees. Given the hardships for both the Natives and the English, it is truly a miracle any were alive by the fall of 1621.

Some of the information for this blog comes from which is written and edited by Caleb Johnson.

What is your favorite Thanksgiving memory or story?

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