The real roots of Thanksgiving: Rethinking what happened 400 years ago at the first feast in Plymouth

From 1621 to now, Thanksgiving tradition still lives on. It just looks a little different than when the Pilgrims and Native Americans first met.

USA TODAY PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Before they’re served piles of turkey and pie, kids often hear the story of the first Thanksgiving – how Pilgrims and Native Americans came together to feast and count their blessings.

But most aren’t told native people likely outnumbered English colonists 2-to-1 at the harvest feast in 1621. Nor do they usually learn just how much Pilgrims relied on the native Wampanoag tribe during those tough early days.

As Plymouth, Massachusetts, prepares for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620, new archaeological work at the town’s original Pilgrim settlement has unearthed more artifacts from native Americans than anticipated.

The discovery provides more context to a Dec. 11, 1621, a letter written by Edward Winslow, an early Pilgrim, to a friend back in England that offers the clearest clues about the feast that became known as the first Thanksgiving.

Winslow wrote that Wampanoag leader Massasoit “with some 90 men” joined the colonists for a three-day feast. About half of the 102 Pilgrims who arrived the year before died the first winter, meaning native people would have nearly doubled the 50 or so Pilgrims at the 1621 event.

“I think a lot of times we really view (Thanksgiving) in a very Pilgrim-centered way,” said David Landon, associate director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“But when you look at the historical accounts more closely, and combine that with the archaeology, it’s really clear that there were way more native American people there than there were English people.”

For the past eight years, Landon has led students at UMass on annual digs each spring around Burial Hill, a cemetery situated in the middle of downtown Plymouth where the Pilgrims’ first settlement is buried. It’s in preparation of the city’s yearlong Plymouth 400 commemoration that kicks off in April.  Even where researchers uncovered European pottery inside the remains of early Pilgrim homes, they often found Wampanoag pottery next to it. The association is strong enough to conclude they were used side-by-side. Landon said it indicates a high level of trade and exchange after the Pilgrims arrived.

Plymouth wasn’t simply an “English colony transplanted into Massachusetts,” Landon said, but an unfamiliar environment where others were already living. It’s a different picture than some 20th-century paintings, for example, that depicts a first Thanksgiving dominated by Pilgrims eating with a few Native Americans.

“And the native people brought a lot of the food,” Landon said. “That sometimes get lost in our simplified view of it.”

Here are some other lesser-known Thanksgiving tidbits

Why Thanksgiving traces to Plymouth

Years before the Mayflower arrived in the U.S., other colonists and native people, in what are now Florida, Virginia, Maine and Texas, held religious services to give thanks, according to researchers from the Plimoth Plantation, a nonprofit living history museum of early Plymouth.

But Plymouth is considered home of the first “Thanksgiving” because the push to make it an official U.S. holiday originated in New England in the 1830s. Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and early Thanksgiving champion, led a campaign to reinstate the holiday, which had been proclaimed by early presidents but abandoned. In 1841, publisher Alexander Young printed a book with Winslow’s letter that coined the 1621 harvest feast America’s “First Thanksgiving.” It stuck.

President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday in 1863. It was initially the last Thursday in November and later set as the fourth Thursday of the month.

Thanksgiving versus thanksgiving

Winslow’s letter detailed a successful first year of harvest for the Pilgrims, with 20 acres of corn and six acres of barley. Peas didn’t fare so well. He does not use the term “Thanksgiving” but describes a three-day feast with Massasoit and his men to “rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”

It would have included games, military demonstrations, rejoicing and religious services,  said Tom Begley, Plimoth Plantation’s executive liaison for administration, research and special projects.

Thanking God for their blessings and harvest, according to Begley, was in the tradition of the Pilgrims’ Separatist Church.

“We talk about a capital T and a lowercase t thanksgiving,” he said. “The lowercase thanksgiving is the religious day that Separatists and Puritan communities are marking. The capital T is what’s become our holiday today.

“Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said the first Thanksgiving wasn’t the “Normal Rockwell” portraits of native people sitting cheerfully on the ground and being served pies.

He said the feast was a diplomatic effort for peace after the Wampanoag spotted Pilgrims in a field shooting muskets for practice. He said Massasoit sent 90 men their way — only to find out “what they were doing was planning on how to take us out.”

“They said, ‘Let’s sit down and talk about peace,”” Cromwell said. “And so we sat down and came up with 75 years of peace — the longest-standing peace known within this country.”

The turkey question

On Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, more than 1,000 students on school field trips spread across the plantation, about two miles from the original settlement. They peeked inside Pilgrim homes and a native campsite and talked to museum workers portraying Pilgrims living in Plymouth in the 1620s.

“There were no formal invitations sent out — that we know of,” Begley said of the 1621 feast, speaking in front of a replica Wampanoag hut, or wetu, erected last year at Plimoth Plantation to show the close proximity between homes of native people and Pilgrims.Winslow’s letter does not explicitly say their feast included turkey — nor does it mention pies or cake, for that matter — but refers to fowl. Turkey, duck and geese would have been plentiful in the area, Begley said. Winslow also wrote the native people went out and killed five deer for the feast.

The English colony’s governor, William Bradford, in a diary called Plymouth Plantation, singled out the abundance of wild turkey near the settlement, Begley said. Kate Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, said it suggests a “strong likelihood” of turkey at the feast.

Cromwell, however, doesn’t believe turkey, including varieties the Pilgrims brought to America, would have been served.

“Turkey was a European creature,” he said.

Sheehan said pork, venison, rabbit, chicken, pork, and goats also would have been available for the first Thanksgiving. Vegetables could have included traditional favorites like squash and pumpkin as well as carrots and turnip greens. Grapes and cherries also would have been available in the area, as would cod, lobster, mussels and other fish.
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