First Thanksgiving: Truths, Assumptions, & Falsehoods

First Thanksgiving Plymouth

As Plymouth, Massachusetts, celebrates the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620, ongoing archaeological work at the original Pilgrim settlement has unearthed a sweeping array of Native American and early European artifacts. These discoveries, together with primary source accounts written by Pilgrims William Bradford and Edward Winslow, have reshaped our understanding of the “First Thanksgiving”; a three-day feast celebrating the Pilgrims’ first harvest in the New World in 1621.      

Painting A Different Picture of The First Thanksgiving

Early artistic renderings of the First Thanksgiving depict a very Pilgrim-centered celebration in which Native Americans were a mere accessory. Historical accounts paired with archeological discoveries, however, paint a very different picture.

First Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe.

In his journal Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth Colony, documented the story of the Pilgrims from 1608, when they first settled in the Dutch Republic, through the 1620 Mayflower voyage to the New World, until the year 1647.

In his account, he carefully lists the 102 Mayflower passengers and those among them that died during the winter of 1620/1621 and the spring of 1621. Based on Bradford’s accounting, and knowing that no other ship arrived in Plymouth until after the First Thanksgiving, the number of Pilgrims at the three-day celebration were the 53 remaining Mayflower survivors.

Mayflower Compact

(Left) Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899. Winslow is the person standing in the center of the painting, with his right hand on the document and the ink horn in his left hand. (Right) First page of “Of Plimoth Plantation” from 1900 publication.

Along with Bradford’s careful documentation, we also have firsthand accounts written by a close Bradford confidant, fellow Mayflower voyager and leader of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow.

In a letter written by Winslow on December 11, 1621, he wrote that Wampanoag leader Massasoit “with some ninety men” joined the Pilgrims for a three-day feast to celebrate the first harvest.

In truth, at the dinner table of America’s First Thanksgiving, Native Americans outnumbered their English counterparts 2-to-1.

A Story of Natives

The Wampanoag people have lived in and around Plymouth—a region known as Patuxet, meaning “at the little falls”for more than 12,000 years. It is here where the Wampanoag harvested the abundant resources found throughout the forests and coastal waterways. They also cleared land to plant and harvest crops such as corn, squash, and beans.

The first contacts between the Wampanoag and Europeans date to the 1500s when European traders and fishermen traveled along the coast of New England in search of furs, wood, cod, and other natural resources.

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A little more than 100 years later, in 1614, mariner Thomas Hunt kidnapped twenty Patuxet men from Plymouth and seven Nauset men from Cape Cod, transporting them to Spain to sell as slaves.


Among the Patuxets kidnapped was Tisquantum, or Squanto. Squanto was either sold in Malaga, Spain, to men from Bristol, England, or he may have been purchased and freed by Spanish Jesuits, later traveling to London with English traders.

In London, Squanto learned English and worked with merchants interested in the American fur trade and other colonial investments. It was there that he met merchant seaman Thomas Dermer, who in 1619, sailed to the Plymouth region with Squanto acting as an interpreter.

In his five-year absence, Squanto discovered that his people had been nearly annihilated by plague. Long believed to be smallpox brought about by contact with Europeans, researchers now suggest that the epidemic was 7-day fever.


(Left) Tisquantum, or Squanto, the guide and interpreter c1864. by Brownell, Charles de Wolf. (Right) Samuel Champlaiin engraving (1612) of Southern New England Algonquians emphasizing their pacific nature and sedentary and agricultural lifestyle.

A year later, in 1620, the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth with 102 men, women, and children.

Friend or Foe?

North of the newly formed Plymouth Colony, Chief Massasoit, leader of the Massachusett Indians, grappled with a decision on what to do with the new inhabitants. He could either form an alliance to fend off hostile tribes or he could form a tribal coalition to drive the foreigners from the land or exterminate them altogether.

During his deliberations, Massasoit met with Squanto who told the Chief of the many wonders he had witnessed while living in England. He implored Massasoit to forge an alliance with the Plymouth colonists; one that would certainly provide protections to Massasoit’s people.

Massasoit also consulted with another man, Samoset, a subordinate chief of the Abenakki Indians, hailing from the Muscongus Bay area of present-day Maine. It was Samoset who would become the first Native American to contact the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony.

Beer Anyone?

On Friday, March 16, 1621, Samoset boldly walked into Plymouth Colony and greeted the Pilgrims in English, which he learned from fisherman working the coastal waters of Maine. Initially alarmed by his sudden arrival, the Pilgrims were immediately put to ease when Samoset asked them for a beer.


Samoset comes “boldly” into Plymouth settlement; woodcut designed by A.R. Waud and engraved by J.P. Davis (1876).

After several days of educating the colonists on the surrounding terrain and the tribes that inhabited it, Samoset returned on Thursday, March 22, with Squanto. The men informed the Pilgrims that Massasoit and 60 of his men were making there to the settlement.

As the two parties met for the first time, it was Squanto that brought the two sides together to discuss an alliance. Edward Winslow, with Squanto as translator, proclaimed peaceful intentions and a desire to trade and make peace with Massasoit. The parties ate together and negotiated a treaty of peace and defense.


(Left) Massasoit and Governor John Carver smoking a peace pipe. (Right) Statue of Massasoit in Plymouth, overlooking the site of Plymouth Rock.

Thanksgiving Turkey?

To acknowledge a successful harvest of crops—success brought about by the newly formed partnership with the Wampanoag—the Pilgrims called for a celebration.

In Winslow’s letter, he describes the events leading up to and during the celebration, writing:

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 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.”

While Winslow writes that deer and fowl were killed for the feast, he does not explicitly cite turkey; nor does he mention fruitcake for that matter. The colony’s governor, William Bradford, did note the abundance of wild turkey near the settlement in his diary Of Plymouth Plantation. Although not specifically cited, we can only assume that turkey made its way to the dinner table of the First Thanksgiving.

In addition to deer and wild fowl, it is also strongly probable that pork, rabbit, chicken, goats, lobster, mussels, and other fish were part of the feast. Vegetables would have included corn, squash, carrots, pumpkin, and turnip greens. Whereas fruit would have likely included grapes and cherries.

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It is important to note yet again, that no fruitcake was mentioned in the primary source documents of Bradford and Winslow, nor has there been any archeological discoveries pointing to its existence at the First Thanksgiving. For those reasons, this author is of the belief that it was never intended to be part of Thanksgiving and will refrain from partaking in its consumption.

If Only Artifacts Could Talk

While much of our knowledge comes from primary source documents like those provided by Bradford and Winslow, archaeological discoveries have helped shape our understanding of how Pilgrims and Native American cohabitated in Plymouth.

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In 2013, an archaeological research initiative, coined Project 400, was launched to find the Pilgrims’ original compound and to better understand the relations between the settlers and Wampanoag. In partnership with the Andrew Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts – Boston, the Town of Plymouth, and Plimoth Plantation, archeologists perform annual digs around Burial Hill, a cemetery in the middle of downtown Plymouth where the Pilgrims’ first settlement is buried.

Since 2013, Project 400 has excavated multiple sites throughout downtown Plymouth, while also taking a new look at past discoveries. Wampanoag artifacts have been found throughout Plymouth, revealing thousands of years of fishing, hunting, planting, and harvesting crops.

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New Plymouth Colony discoveries include the remains of two houses and a section of the wooden palisade wall that once surrounded the town. Within the remains of Pilgrim homes, both English and Wampanoag pottery have been discovered. Such discoveries strongly suggest both were used interchangeably by the Pilgrims.

Other discoveries such as glass beads, pipes, buttons, and coins spread about subsoil of Plymouth also suggests strong trade among the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, while also shedding light on what other colonial powers the Pilgrims were trading with during their time at Plymouth.


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