|The First Thanksgiving. An idealized portrayal by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris, 1912-15.|
“Our corn [meaning wheat] did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn, and our barley indifferent good, but our peas not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sown, they came up very well, and blossomed, but the sun parched them in the blossom. Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
This is Edward Winslow’s firsthand account of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. It is one of only two primary sources that describe a scene that has become one of the mythic touchstones of American history. The Pilgrims, a small band of sturdy, self-reliant, God-fearing people, crossed the Atlantic on a leaky ship, the Mayflower, endured much hardship to settle a wilderness where they could govern themselves freely and worship as they chose. This inspired the ideal image that Americans have of themselves: heroic pioneers who risk all for the sake of liberty.
Here is the other primary account, from Governor William Bradford’s history of the colony, Of Plymouth Plantation:
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in
, which were not feigned but true reports. England
What Winslow and Bradford described was a traditional English harvest festival, a secular celebration of medieval origins, devoted to eating, drinking, and making merry. But this first Thanksgiving was also a Puritan rite of spiritual devotion. Contrary to the popular image, the Puritans were not sour and morose people; they knew how to have fun. But the demands of heaven took precedence over those of earth. We don’t know the exact date it was held; a nineteenth-century historian estimated that it was probably between September 23 and November 11 and most likely in October, soon after the Pilgrims had harvested their first crop of corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas. It was only after the crisis of King Philip’s War in 1676 that Thanksgiving became an annual event in
New England, held on a Thursday in November or December. This was a more solemn occasion of fasting, feasting, and sermonizing, reminding the colonists that New England was founded as a holy experiment. It was not until 1863, at the height of the Civil War, that Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday in November as the national Thanksgiving holiday that we celebrate today.
|Edward Winslow in 1651.|
The real importance of the harvest festival in 1621 was the cementing of an alliance between the vulnerable settlers of
and the Pokanoket tribe (a branch of Wampanoag nation) of Chief Massasoit. The Pilgrims would not have survived without the generosity of the Native American Indians. Much of Winslow’s and Bradford’s chronicles of the colony’s first year are devoted to the complex diplomatic dance that brought this alliance into being. Plymouth