The Full Story of the First Thanksgiving

Updated November 23, 2023 | Infoplease Staff

The origins of Thanksgiving trace far back in American history. Its roots are deeply embedded into the country's culture and traditions, celebrated annually by families and friends gathering around to share a meal. Infoplease is proud to offer comprehensive information on the history of Thanksgiving, so celebrate the holiday with us as we explore the story behind Thanksgiving.

A Story of Politics and Intrigue

The story of the "first Thanksgiving" is usually told as a pat story about sharing food and playing sports. Aside from the potential harm of such a saccharine retelling, it also overlooks the fascinating reality of the situation. Have you ever wondered how Squanto was able to speak to the English as soon as they arrived? Have you ever wondered why there was so much fertile land available when the Pilgrims landed? Here's the full scoop. 

Before the Pilgrims

England's first major, successful colony in North America was Newfoundland. It was first chartered as a colony in 1583, two years before Roanoke. The charter came on the tail end of more than 50 years of seasonal fishing; documentary evidence suggests that English subjects were fishing off the coast of Newfoundland since the 1520s (a full century before the Pilgrims' landing!). These fishermen had extended contact with the nations of the present-day Northeastern United States. This transatlantic contact brought the same problems to the Northeast that it brought everywhere else—disease and huge changes to the economy.

The Northeast was heavily populated in the centuries before European arrival. The population of the Northeastern Woodlands, prior to the introduction of maize, was already sustained by a diverse economy of fishing, hunting, foraging, and horticulture. The population boomed after maize was widely adopted in the 1100s. Communities became larger. These larger economies spurred competition for resources. The increasing rate and scale of warfare led to the creation of political alliances for mutual trade and defense. These political spheres then went on to shape the growth of settlements into distinct clusters of influence. The Iroquois Confederacy (the Haudenosaunee) is the best-known example, but there were many Confederate groups of notable size.

But, when the Pilgrims arrived, they described an empty and desolate landscape. They weren't lying. Diseases from the early Newfoundland settlers ravaged the Northeast, in some cases eradicating whole settlements. Scholars used to suspect smallpox, which has been a common culprit throughout history, but modern medical analyses suggest that the plague or leptospirosis is more likely to be blamed. 

The Story of Tisquantum

The English began exploring New England for settlement in 1602. There were several failed colonies prior to Plymouth, all of which ran afoul of hostile locals. Hostile with good cause — starting in 1605, English explorers commonly abducted native people to bring to Europe for servitude and public display. By 1610 it was common enough to provide fodder for a joke in Shakespeare's "The Tempest": "When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian."

In 1614, English explorer Thomas Hunt went to modern-day Massachusetts to acquire furs and cod. There he encountered the Patuxet and landed on a new plan to bolster his income. He kidnapped twenty people, including Tisquantum (also known as Squanto), and brought them back to Europe. Tisquantum was sold in Spain. A lot is unknown about this time in his life; what he did there and for how long is a mystery. What we do know is that he converted to Christianity. He eventually escaped to England. He lived there until he could secure passage back to Massachusetts.

By the time Tisquantum arrived, a disease epidemic had already eradicated the Patuxet, and his village was abandoned.

The Pilgrims and Their Travails

The Pilgrims were a religious minority in England. They were a band of Puritans, one of many who were at odds with the Church of England over matters of ceremony and practice. This made them run afoul of an anti-Catholic law that fined people who didn't go to Anglican services each week. Fines started small, but on repeat offense would often end with imprisonment. The Pilgrims and other nonconformist Puritans were imprisoned regularly. In 1606, the new Archbishop of York decided to crack down more harshly on the Puritans, fining and dismissing clergymen with Puritan views. The Pilgrims believed reconciliation with the Church was impossible, and so they decided to leave England in search of religious freedom elsewhere. 

In 1607 they sailed for the Netherlands. To their dismay, their children became more Dutch as time went by, and left in pursuit of high-paying work. Faced with losing their English identity and their congregation, they decided to abandon the Netherlands in 1617. 

They then decided to create a colony in the New World. There were originally going to be 120 settlers on two ships. One of the ships was unfit for the voyage, so they consolidated as much as possible on the Mayflower. The final voyage carried 102 passengers from Plymouth in September 1620. Of these 102, only 28 were members of the Pilgrims' original congregation. The rest were servants and craftsmen hired by the colony for a term of service. At the time of their departure, the charter for their new colony wasn't finished, and it wouldn't be issued until they were well underway. This meant that there was no organization or legal obligations awaiting the settlers in the New World. To address this problem, a democratic majority drafted and approved the Mayflower Compact (a majority of men, that is, as the women weren't allowed to vote). They sighted land on November 9. 

The Mayflower waited off the coast of Cape Cod for days while smaller groups explored the mainland. They found a number of abandoned farms and villages. Luckily for the settlers, some of these farms had been seeded before their residents died, and there was food enough to fend off starvation. They also encountered several groups of natives, some of whom fled after seeing their ship and others who attempted to drive them off. Many people around Cape Cod knew victims of English abductions or remembered when the English shot and disposed of abducted locals. 

The fear of being attacked on landing, and the ongoing search for a suitable settlement location, kept the settlers aboard the sh for almost three months. They finally chose Plymouth, a small village with good soil and a working harbor nearby. This would be the site of the first permanent English settlement in what is now Massachusetts. The Mayflower's journey was long and difficult, but in the end, it laid the foundation for a new nation that eventually became known as America.

The Sovereignty of Massasoit and His Rivals

Tisquantum persuaded the Pokanoket leader Massasoit (his title, meaning "great sachem") that he could ally with the English to firm up his political dominance around Massachusetts Bay. Massasoit sent Tisquantum to educate the English settlers how to farm and survive the winter, in hopes of establishing a political and economic alliance. The first Thanksgiving,

The Alliance Between Pokanoket and Plymouth

There was an alliance between the English of Plymouth Colony and the Pokanoket, which began sometime before the first Thanksgiving in 1621. The peace remained intact until Massasoit's death in 1662, when his son Wamsutta succeeded him. The relationship soon changed as Wamsutta attempted to break away from English control and establish himself as a more powerful leader than his father had been. This led to conflict with colonial authorities, an uprising of Native American allies against Plymouth, and ultimately Wamsutta's untimely death. 

The legacy of Massasoit and Tisquantum lives on and their alliance is remembered by many as one that allowed both parties to coexist peacefully for over forty years.

The Death of Tisquantum

Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, passed away in 1622 after helping the Pilgrims survive the first winter and teaching them about how to cultivate corn and other crops from Native Americans. He was an integral part of Plymouth's success, but his death marked a period of great upheaval for both English settlers and Native inhabitants. A few years later, Massasoit died as well, leaving his son Wamsutta in charge of the Pokanoket people. This led to a period of conflict between Wamsutta and colonial authorities which ultimately ended with Wamsutta’s untimely passing. 

Relations Break Down

The death of both Tisquantum and Massasoit marked the end of the peaceful coexistence between Pilgrims and Native Americans. With Wamsutta in charge, numerous skirmishes ensued between English colonists and Native tribes, leading to a more hostile environment for both parties. In addition, English settlers continued to expand their territories, forcing many Native Americans off their land and furthering tensions between the two groups.

The Lead-up to Metacomet's War

The tensions between the English colonists and Native Americans continued to escalate, culminating in Metacomet's War of 1675. This marked a turning point for both sides as it was ultimately unsuccessful for the Pokanoket people and decimated their population. Despite this, Metacomet’s legacy is remembered among many Native American tribes today. 

Ultimately, Tisquantum's actions allowed for Pilgrims to survive in what is now known as America, however, his ultimate passing marked the end of an era of cooperation between English settlers and Native Americans. Although there would be periods of peace throughout history, this period of animosity changed relations forever. The death of Tisquantum serves as a reminder that our differences should not stand in the way of our common goals. His legacy continues to live on to this day, as he is remembered for his bravery and commitment to the survival of the Plymouth colony.

The First Thanksgiving: Summing it All Up

The story of the first Thanksgiving as we know it is one of courage, resilience, and cooperation. From Tisquantum's daring journey to England to the difficult passage of the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, to the Wampanoag tribe's willingness to help, everyone played an important role in ensuring that this special day became a treasured part of American history. As Thanksgiving approaches each year, let us remember those who helped make it happen and take time to appreciate our shared heritage. Let us also recognize that progress is possible when we work together towards a common goal. Thanks for taking the time to learn about this incredible story. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sources:  The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume I (2001), The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume I (1996),Axtell, James (January 1978). "The Ethnohistory of Early America: A Review Essay"Russell, Howard S. (1980). Indian New England before the Mayflower, The Columbia Encyclopedia

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