What really happened at the first Thanksgiving?
Editor’s note: you can see video of Plimoth Plantation and learn more about the history of Thanksgiving by watching the latest edition of the Center’s Constitution Hall Pass.
As you can imagine, Thanksgiving is a big deal for us! We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, researching, and thinking some more about what really happened in the autumn of 1621. The truth is, there’s a lot that we don’t know. We only have one eyewitness account that comes from a letter written by colonist Edward Winslow to a friend. That letter was published in London in 1623 in a book now known as Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. There are no known Wampanoag oral traditions about the event.
Here’s what Winslow writes…
…our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted and they went our and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestwed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodnesse of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.
Winslow’s account tells us that the intent was to rejoice after the harvest, it lasted three days, there was fowl and deer to eat, Massasoit and 90 warriors (amongst others) attended, the Wampanoag went out and killed 5 deer, there were recreations which included shooting muskets, and they entertained and feasted the Wampanoag.
Important questions like these can change how we view the First Thanksgiving.
But what doesn’t it tell us? I want to know what else they ate, what were the “other recreations”, did the Wampanoag and Pilgrim children play, and where did the Wampanoag sleep? But what I REALLY want to know is whether the Wampanoag were actually invited to the event. If you go back and read the letter you may be surprised. To me, it sounds like the colonists could have been having their own celebration and the Wampanoag arrived. Maybe the Wampanoag were drawn by the unusual amount of gunfire? Or maybe Massasoit was visiting in the area on diplomatic business? What if the Wampanoag went out and killed the five deer because there wasn’t enough food for the over 90 unexpected guests (there were only about 50 colonists)?
Important questions like these can change how we view the First Thanksgiving. After all, how many of us grew up thinking that the whole reason for the First Thanksgiving was for the Pilgrims to thank the Wampanoag for their help in surviving their difficult first year?
What do you think really happened at the First Thanksgiving? To find out more, visit our Plimoth Plantation website www.plimoth.org. There you’ll find Thanksgiving resources, articles, and videos. Children can launch their own investigation in our online activity You are the Historian: Investigating the First Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving!
Kim VanWormer is the Director of Education and Public Programs at Plimoth Plantation.