The year is 1620, the month is September, and the ship is the Mayflower. 102 passengers leave the city of Plymouth, England, whether to seek a new home where they could freely practice or faith, or individuals enticed by the promise of riches and wealth galore to be had in the New World. A hard journey that lasted 66 days and an even harder winter on the banks of Massachusetts Bay leave less than half of the original passengers by the time spring comes. In March they begin working to establish a village at Plymouth, and receive a visit from an Abenaki Indian who speaks to them in English! He returns a few days later and introduces them to Squanto, which marks the beginning of a long and important friendship. Squanto is a member of the Pawtuxet tribe and can speak English because he was kidnapped by an English sea captain, sold into slavery, escaped to London, and finally returned home on an exploratory expedition. Squanto teaches the weak, malnourished, and ill Pilgrims how to survive in the New World. They learn how to grow corn, draw sap from maple trees, catch fish, and even what plants are poisonous. Squanto helps the pilgrims forge an alliance with the local native tribe, the Wampanoag, which lasts for more than fifty years.
November, 1621, the Pilgrims have their first successful corn harvest and Governor William Bradford organizes a celebratory feast that lasts for three days! The colonists invite their Native American allies including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now celebrated very lavishly “The First Thanksgiving” most likely was not such a fanciful feast. Menu items include dear, fowl, and dishes prepared using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. There are no pies, cakes, or other desserts, but it truly is a feast in the eyes of these hardened settlers who had endured so much.
This harvest feast tradition lasted for more than two centuries and was celebrated by individual colonies and states. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that a national Thanksgiving Day to be held every November.
Today Thanksgiving is one of America’s favorite holidays, bringing family and friends together to eat good food (although very different from the original feast), enjoy each other’s company, and reflect on what we’re thankful for.