The entirety of what we know about the first Thanksgiving comes only from two documents: a 1621 letter written by Edward Winslow and a letter written by William Bradford years after the event. Because of the scarcity of details, we have created an incredible legend of the first Thanksgiving.
In school, we learn about the day of thanks that the Pilgrims and native Indians shared to give thanks for the good harvest. We typically do not learn about the tensions between the two groups, the plague that killed all of the Patuxet people in 1619, or the captured natives who were sold as slaves.
What do we really know about this holiday?
- The first Thanksgiving was not the first day of thanksgiving. Other cultures had been celebrating and giving thanks to the gods or God for harvests, rain, and other “blessings.” In what is now the United States, thanksgivings had been celebrated in Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia well before the “first” one in Plymouth.
- Most of us enjoy a long weekend for Thanksgiving. That is fitting with the 1621 event; this feast of venison and wildfowl and vegetables lasted for three days sometime between September 21 and November 11.
- 90 Wampanoag attended the celebration, though historians do not know if they were specifically invited or initiated the feast. They do know that the natives brought at least five deer to the gathering and that days of thanksgiving were common in native life.
- 52 Pilgrims were in attendance, most of whom were women and children. Half of the original Pilgrims died before the first Thanksgiving because of the harsh weather, lack of provisions, and illness. While life was certainly tough, starvation was not an issue for the Pilgrims in 1621. They were able to live off of seafood and game.
- Much of what we think about Pilgrims is not based on fact. They were not dour, humorless, stark people dressed in black and white. They were not all old men; in fact, most were young, and there were a great many women and children among the Pilgrims.
- Pilgrims did not celebrate Thanksgiving each year. The event in 1621 wasn’t repeated. When William Bradford’s letter was discovered, it brought renewed interest to the idea of a thanksgiving day. President Lincoln recognized Thanksgiving as an official holiday in 1863.
The holiday we celebrate now has evolved from this first humble feast. Today, we draw meaning from our idea of the first Thanksgiving and its legend. We gather with family and friends and take stock of our own good harvest; today that is not so much a good yield of corn, but a good job, a good family, a home, an education, or whatever it is for which we are thankful. We bring Thanksgiving gifts and celebrate with a big meal with family or friends. The Pilgrims have become somewhat of a decoration for our celebrations, but the history of the real first Thanksgiving is much more complex and interesting than we give it credit for.