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The first Thanksgiving

In the fall of 1621, 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 English colonists gathered for a three-day harvest feast. How did Americans get from that celebration to the Thanksgiving 'traditions' we observe today?

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Everyone knows about the Pilgrims and the Indians, right? How the two groups gathered peacefully in Plymouth, Mass., to feast on juicy turkeys and colorful pumpkin pies.

The trouble is, almost everything we've been taught about the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is a myth. The holiday has two distinct histories - the actual one and a romanticized portrayal.

Today, Americans celebrate a holiday based largely on the latter, whose details of turkey and cranberry sauce decorating one long table stem from the creative musings of a magazine editor in the mid-1800s.

The true history has been a difficult one to uncover. Staff at Plimoth Plantation, which occupies several acres on the outskirts of the city of Plymouth, just north of Cape Cod, have been in the vanguard of researching the event. But a big obstacle remains: Everything historians know today is based on two passages written by colonists.

Participants' accounts

In a letter to a friend, dated December 1621, Edward Winslow wrote: "Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more 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, among other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some 90 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."

Twenty years later, William Bradford wrote a book that provides a few more hints as to what might have been on that first Thanksgiving table. But his book was stolen by British looters during the Revolutionary War and therefore didn't have much influence on how Thanksgiving was celebrated until it turned up many years later.

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