The First Thanksgiving, if one is referring to the celebration feast attended by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians, occurred during the second year after the pilgrims first landed at Plymouth Rock on December 21, 1620. They had sighted Cape Cod on November 9, 1620 but found it to be unsuitable and settled at Plymouth after more than a month of searching.
The reason for their late arrival was because of the difficulty they had leaving England. They first attempted to leave in August on two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell. Soon the Speedwell began taking on water. They returned to have it repaired and then set out again, only to have the Speedwell again begin taking on water. They returned to England a second time and after unsuccessful attempts to repair the Speedwell, set out on the Mayflower alone.
The 66-day voyage was brutal. The weather was bad and that was a surprise. Since their intended landing site in the new world was at approximately the same latitude as the Southern coast of England, they mistakenly assumed the weather would be about the same. In the 17th Century it was not known that ocean currents are a larger factor in local weather patterns than latitude. When they arrived in what is now Massachusetts, winter was in full force. Their first year in the New World was a year of living dangerously. Many starved.
Their first lucky break came in March of 1621 when they met an Indian named Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet band of the Wampanoag tribe . Squanto spoke English and ask them if they had any beer. It probably came as a great surprise to the pilgrims that the first Indian they met spoke good English and relished beer. Squanto had spent 10 years in England being educated by a kind English family who had taken him in. The full story of Squanto is a fascinating one. Here’s a place to start if you’re interested. It’s only a starting point, the story is deep and long and rich and wonderful. Well, now it is wonderful for us to read, it wasn’t always wonderful for Squanto.
Squanto helped the pilgrims in so many ways that it’s possible to believe they might not have made it in the New World without him. Well, they didn’t make it finally. By the time of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans under John Winthrop in the 1630’s there was little left of the Mayflower Pilgrims and they were absorbed into the new Puritan colony.
The other most important Native American to the survival of the Pilgrims was Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe. This is another rich and wonderful story, and a starting place for anyone interested is here. Again, it’s only a place to start. The story is much too involved to be easily contained in a few paragraphs.
The bottom line is this: the Pilgrims relied heavily on Squanto, Massasoit and the Wampanoag Indians for learning survival skills in their new home, and it was a mutually beneficial relationship. There was never any violence between the Pilgrims and the Indians. An attack on the Pilgrims was once secretly planned by a group of Indians, but was squelched by the skillful diplomacy of Massasoit. Later, Massasoit came very close to death from a strange sickness and was saved by the ministrations of the Pilgrims. He went on to live a long life and died in 1661.
George Washington proclaimed the 26th of November, 1789 as a day of thanksgiving, and Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national annual holiday in 1863.
Happy Thanksgiving! This holiday has a delightfully magnificent history for everyone to explore.