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What really happened at the first Thanksgiving?

Pilgrims with buckles on their hats and shoes had a feast with the Native Americans to celebrate what they were thankful for. At least that’s what everyone was told in school. The true history of Thanksgiving is surrounded in mystery, but scholars do have some ideas about what exactly went on during the feast of 1621. Here’s what really happened at the first Thanksgiving.

Heading to the New World

Group of people traveling and climbing a large hill during a bright sunrise
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It’s a common belief that the Pilgrims were searching for religious freedom in the New World, but this is only partially true. They enjoyed religious freedom in nearby Holland, but Dutch craft guilds excluded foreigners, which made it nearly impossible for them to make any real money. They decided to head to America where they could make money and also enjoy religious freedom.

These people called themselves saints or separatists; today, they are known as Pilgrims. They joined a group of 62 secular colonists who were also headed to the New World.

The Voyage

Replica of the 17th century pilgrim ship the Mayflower on display in harbor
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In 1620, two ships called the Mayflower and the Speedwell began their long voyage across the Atlantic. The Speedwell developed a leak early into the journey, and both ships had to turn back. All 102 passengers and their belongings crammed onto the Mayflower, and they restarted the voyage. This time, because of the delay, they were traveling during prime storm season.

The ship finally made ground after a treacherous 66 days at sea with, surprisingly, only one fatality. They were aiming to make land in Virginia where they were promised a tract of land for a plantation. They missed, whether by accident or on purpose, and landed in modern-day Massachusetts. They named the new colony Plymouth after the English port they sailed from.

First year

Plimouth Plantation living museum depicting 17th century Pilgrim life, Plymouth, Massachusetts
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The Pilgrims spent the first winter onboard the ship. The tight quarters and harsh New England winter proved fatal for almost half of the colonists. Once spring came around, only 53 colonists and half of the crew remained. Women were the hardest hit, and only five survived the first winter.

Once winter was over, the colonists left the ship, and the Mayflower began its journey back to England in April of 1621. The Pilgrims started to build their colony with the help of a local Native American tribe called the Wampanoag. Luckily for them, some of the natives spoke fluent English and helped them form an alliance with the tribe: Tisquantum, or Squanto, being the most famous. The Wampanoag taught the settlers how to farm, fish, and hunt in their new home.

The first Thanksgiving

Up close view of autumn cornucopia with gourds, fruits, and pine cones
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With the help from the Native Americans, the Pilgrims harvested plenty of food over the summer and fall to keep them well-stocked for the upcoming winter. In England, there’s a tradition called the Harvest Festival that’s celebrated at the end of the harvest season. It’s intended both to give thanks for what you have and to share with those who have less. In 1621, after over a year of hardship and loss, the Pilgrims finally felt like they had something to celebrate.

There was a three-day feast at which both Native Americans and Pilgrims came together to enjoy the successful harvest season. It’s unclear whether the Wampanoag were actually invited to the celebration. Either way, about 90 Native Americans showed up. There were almost twice as many natives as there were Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims consisted of 22 men, four women, and 25 children and teens.

Thanksgiving food

Thanksgiving table with wooden cutting board and variety of dishes ready for serving
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While it has been documented that wild turkeys were prevalent in the area, there’s no mention of them actually being served at the first Thanksgiving. Historical documents do state that fowl was served but don’t specifically mention turkey. The Wampanoag arrived with an offering of five deer, which was most likely the main course of the feast. Because of the availability in the region, fish and shellfish probably played a large role in the feast as well.

In addition to the meat, local fruits and vegetables like onions, beans, berries, cabbage, and corn were most likely a part of the feast as well. Although turkey might not have made the menu on the first Thanksgiving, cranberries certainly did. Native Americans frequently ate cranberries and used them for dye long before the Pilgrims showed up.

Unfortunately, the Pilgrims didn’t have the time to build any ovens in the year that they had been in Plymouth, which means that dessert pastries, like pumpkin pie, didn’t make an appearance at the original feast. The Pilgrims didn’t get to eat any yams, either, since potatoes aren’t native to North America and hadn’t been brought over from Europe yet.

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