The Plymouth Massachusetts Pilgrims came to the Americas in the 1620s, though one Pilgrim, Edward Winslow, took initiative maybe without even realizing it to document the first-hand experience of the group as they traveled to New England, lived in the colony for the first year, and hosted the first-ever Thanksgiving. The documentation of the experience is the first and only retelling of the historical event.
After an excruciating winter, in March the Pilgrims met English-speaking Wampanoags Samoset and Squanto, and through Squanto, Winslow was able to meet chief Ousamequin. The relations Winslow fostered turned into friendships and with the Natives’ help, the Pilgrims were able to plant spring crops, which set the stage for the first Thanksgiving.
The Natives were likely seeking hope from their newfound friendship with the Pilgrims as many of their people, an estimated 90%, were wiped out by diseases the Europeans brought with them to the new country.
Though the two sides confirmed their friendship with a grand feast of their autumn harvest, in what is now known as Thanksgiving. Edward Winslow described the festivities in only 115 words in his letter detailing the events of that first year for the Pilgrims.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after have a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.”
The feast included fowl, venison, and corn, along with many other fruits and vegetables they had harvested.
The idea of the Thanksgiving turkey didn’t come about for more than two centuries until the first governor of Plymouth, William Bradford, began to detail his history in “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Though he does not mention the first Thanksgiving feast, making Winslow’s story the only retelling we have of the festivities that occurred on the multi-day celebration.
Winslow detailed what occurred during the festivities and gave us the meaning behind the festivities, which we still practice as the meaning of modern thanksgiving. In the celebration, Winslow mentions the Natives outnumbering the Pilgrims. As Massasoit brought 90 men, and an assumed equal amount of women and children, there were only about 50 English settlers in the colony at the time. Though Winslow said the meeting was a celebration, as the group had gone from almost perishing to an abundance in only one season’s harvest.
Before Winslow died of yellow fever while at sea on May 7, 1655, he was able to provide us with the story of that first Thanksgiving, which along with the rest of his letter is left as a miracle. As the entire colony should probably have never survived that first winter when they arrived in New England, though through hard work and perseverance the colony survived and Winslow was able to tell their story.
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