The painting above, The First Thanksgiving 1621, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899) shows common misconceptions about the event that persisted to modern times: Pilgrims did not wear outfits like these, and the Wampanoag are dressed in the style of Native Americans from the Great Plains.
The traditional American Thanksgiving story is the ideal narrative of friendship and acceptance. This mythic feast of thanksgiving is intended to reinforce a sense of collective patriotic pride in the struggle and fortitude of the Mayflower Pilgrims and a grateful warmth for the receptive Natives who greeted them with open arms. It’s a story of unconditional welcome that rationalizes and justifies the uninvited settlement of a foreign people by painting a picture of an organic, reciprocal friendship. The truth, however, is much more complicated. A more accurate depiction describes the establishment of political alliances built on a shared need for survival.
The Pilgrims Arrive
The most egregious offense of the first Thanksgiving story is that it gives the impression that the Mayflower Pilgrims were the first European settlers.
By 1620 when the Mayflower arrived, Europeans had been traveling to North America and founding colonies for more than 100 years. The Eastern shoreline was dotted with numerous European towns including Jamestown, Virginia which was founded in 1607. French Huguenots had established a settlement in Florida nearly a century earlier, from 1562-1565. The Spanish subsequently wiped out the settlement and they in turn established the colony of St. Augustine.
When the Pilgrims arrived, so the story goes, they found a wilderness inhabited with nomadic Natives. This imaginary encourages the impression that the settlers dropped into wild, untended land that they were entitled to tame and take for their own. But, according to the Pilgrim’s journals, this version is an invention.
The Pilgrim settlement named New Plymouth had previously been called Patuxet and was the ancestral land of the Wampanoag people. Contrary to popular myth, the Wampanoag were not nomads. They were farmers with well-managed cornfields and crops of beans and squash and land for game. From colonists’ journal entries we know that Native homes and graves were robbed of food and other items. Written accounts describe taking “things” that the Pilgrims intended to pay for later when they encountered their owners.
“At another place we had seen before, we dug and found some more corn, two or three baskets full, and a bag of beans…In all we had about ten bushels, which will be enough for seed.”
The Pilgrims were Protestant Puritans who believed in divine predestination, so they attributed their good fortune to God.
“It was with God’s help that we found this corn, for how else could we have done it, without meeting some Indians who might trouble us.”
The colonists didn’t meet Natives, however, because the region that would become Plymouth Colony had very recently undergone a plague of an unidentified European disease.
The Pilgrim’s good fortune that first winter of 1620 was caused by a rampant disease that had decimated the Native people between 1616 and 1619. Historians believe at least one third to as much as 90% of the population died. Prior to the epidemic Patuxet had been a village of about 2,000 people. The Pilgrims would have encountered a very different land if not for disease.
An Alliance is Made
In March 1621 the Pilgrims had their first real encounter with Natives. They had spent their first brutal winter in New England with barely enough food to survive. Half of them had died of sickness or starvation and the other half were badly malnourished. They welcomed an alliance with Natives who might teach them to survive the harsh winters. Leaders of the Wampanoag were eager to form an alliance with the colonists. Prior to the plague, the Wampanoag nation included sixty-nine villages throughout what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The shifting balance of power between the neighboring Narragansett, Mohegan and Pequot peoples, in the wake of the devastation to their populations, left the Wampanoag vulnerable. It was beneficial to align themselves with the colonists to be partners in defending the territory.
The Wampanoag and other Native societies in coastal New England, had long learned how to manage the incoming Europeans. They encouraged the exchange of goods, but would allow their visitors only brief, carefully controlled excursions. At the same time, the Wampanoag fended off Natives from the interior, preventing them from trading directly with the foreigners. In this way the shoreline Natives oversaw both European access to Native products and Native access to European products. Now, reversing long-standing policy, the Wampanoag decided to permit the newcomers to stay for an unlimited time, provided they formally allied with the Wampanoag against the Narragansett and neighboring peoples. This ensured the survival of Plymouth Colony, which spearheaded the great wave of British immigration to New England. But it would turn out to be disastrous to the Native peoples.
The First “Thanksgiving”
The English had observed an ancient, secular, custom of harvest festivals since Medieval times. Natives had also practiced spiritual ceremonies of gratitude. So, the notion of giving thanks was already common in both cultures.
We have two primary written sources for the first Thanksgiving story. Edward Winslow’s Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation both describe a feast, but neither calls it a “thanksgiving”. Neither accounts support the familiar tale of Pilgrims hosting a banquet to thank the Natives for their help or teaching the Natives about the concept of thanksgiving. Only Winslow’s account even mentions the Native’s participation.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four me on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits 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 amongst 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.”
Historians speculate that the Wampanoag, upon hearing the discharge of arms from the colonist’s festivities, feared they were under attack from the Narragansett or other Natives. Massasoit with his ninety men arrived in anticipation of assisting in the fight. When they found no disturbance, the Natives joined the festivities and contributed to the feast by providing the five deer.
When put into context, the mythic first Thanksgiving feast of friendship and solidarity aimed to elicit patriotic feelings of a country built upon peaceful colonists received by benevolent Native hosts is not entirely true. The sterilized, simplistic story we are told depicts an exaggerated genuineness of the colonists’ intentions and perpetuates stereotypes of Native Americans as unwitting participants of their own, eventual demise. In reality, both parties had ulterior motives and reason to fear and distrust each other, but an alliance was necessary to ensure the survival of all.
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