Last week, I introduced the history of Thanksgiving in the United States. Since the first Thanksgiving has, retrospectively, been applied to the 1621 harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims, I’ve been exploring that history. Last week, I gave an overview of what is modern-day New England in the 1600s from the perspective of the Native Americans, particularly the Wampanoag. Today, I will look at the history of the Pilgrim Fathers, their intersection with the Wampanoag, and what is credited as the first Thanksgiving.

Who were the Pilgrims? Well, it’s a bit complicated. In short, the Pilgrims were English settlers who came over to North America to start a new life. Some of them did this for religious reasons – about half of those who came over were Separatists, a branch of the Puritans who believed that they could not worship in the Anglican Church. For the past ten years, many of these Separatists had been living in exile in the Netherlands. They left the Netherlands over concerns about job opportunities, fears that their children would become Dutch and not remain English, and the possibility for missionary work among the Native Americans in North America. In addition to the Separatists, though, were other sympathizers to their cause, as well as various hired workers, slaves, and soldiers. This mixed band of settlers called themselves “Old Comers” – only later on in history will they become known as Pilgrims.

Initially, there had been 120 settlers who left the Netherlands and England on two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. Speedwell proved un-seaworthy, and so the passengers were all consolidated onto the Mayflower, and the number reduced to 102. Mayflower left Plymouth harbor in Devon, England on September 16, 1620. The voyage was smooth for the most part, but storms were encountered during part of the trip. The journey lasted for over two months, and one crew member and one passenger died, and a child, named Oceanus, was born. Since the government charter for the settlers, who were financed by investors, was incomplete when the Pilgrims left, they technically had no patent to legally settle in the New World. To resolve this, a document, the Mayflower Compact, was drawn up, and voted on by 41 adult males who represented the rest of the 1o2 passengers. This compact became the first governing document for the future colony, and guaranteed a system of democratic form of governance.

Initially, the plan for the Pilgrims was to settle along the mouth of the Hudson River, near where New York City is today. However, bad weather when the Mayflower rounded Cape Cod prevented that strategy. For weeks, the Pilgrims lived in the Mayflower, making occasional foraging expeditions. They eventually began settling at the former site of Patuxet, an area that explorers had dubbed Plymouth or Plimouth, in December 1620. And then winter set in. It was a particularly brutal one, and devastating for the Pilgrims. In addition to the biting cold, the Pilgrims were unused to living on the New England coast, and suffered outbreaks of disease. By next spring, half the colonists died, with only 56 remaining.

The colony ultimately would have failed had not the Wampanoag intervened. As explained last week, Massasoit, the ruler of the Wampanoag and a member of the Pokanoket, decided to ally with the Pilgrims as part of a mutual protection agreement in case his enemies, the Narragansett, attacked the Wampanoag. Samoset, a chief from the Abenaki in what is now Maine, walked into Plymouth Colony on March 16, 1621, asked for a beer, and introduced himself. With Samoset acting as an intermediary, the Pilgrims made an alliance with Massasoit. As the Pilgrims had proven that they had no idea of how to cope with life in New England, Massasoit had Squanto, a former resident of the now abandoned Patuxet, teach the Pilgrims how to fish and grow corn. Massasoit did not trust Squanto, who had ambitions of ruling the Wampanoag, and thus kept a close eye on him.

After a disastrous start, the Pilgrim colony at Plymouth now began to flourish. In November, the Pilgrims wanted to celebrate the successful year with its bountiful harvest, and thank God for his protection, and provision of a new land for them and adequate food. As they were close with the Wampanoag, they too were invited to participate in the feast. What did they eat? Corn, fish, and shellfish probably dominated the menu. Various native wild birds, such as ducks, geese, turkey, and swans, might have been consumed – we know that the Pilgrims went bird hunting for the feast, but did not record exactly which birds they caught. Various fruits, berries, and nuts, along with squashes, would have filled out the menu. The Pilgrims and Wampanoag did not consider this extended, multiple-day feast Thanksgiving – that name would be given to the event centuries later. But it was a time of celebration and thankfulness.

Unfortunately, in the long run, the alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag broke down. Squanto tried to get the Pilgrims to turn against Massasoit – and thus perhaps take control of the Wampanoag confederation himself, but those plans were foiled. However, after the death of Massasoit, relations between the Wampanoag, and other Native Americans, and the Pilgrims and other Puritans soured, as the Puritans settled and conquered more and more land. Massasoit’s son, Metacomet, also known as King Philip, led, and lost, a war against the Puritans in New England, which, in proportion to the overall population, was far deadlier than the American Civil War. So, today, we can look back at what is touted as the first Thanksgiving as a joyous occasion and a sign of goodwill between the English and the Wampanoag, but temper that memory with the knowledge of the subsequent conflicts and destruction brought about by the English settlers.

 

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