The real roots of Thanksgiving: Rethinking what happened 400 years ago at the first feast in Plymouth

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Before they're served piles of turkey and pie, kids often hear the story of the first Thanksgiving – how Pilgrims and native Americans came together to feast and count their blessings.

But most aren't told native people likely outnumbered English colonists 2-to-1 at the harvest feast in 1621. Nor do they usually learn just how much Pilgrims relied on the native Wampanoag tribe during those tough early days.

As Plymouth, Massachusetts, prepares for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's arrival in 1620, new archaeological work at the town's original Pilgrim settlement has unearthed more artifacts from native Americans than anticipated.

The discovery provides more context to a Dec. 11, 1621, letter written by Edward Winslow, an early Pilgrim, to a friend back in England that offers the clearest clues about the feast that became known as the first Thanksgiving. 

This is a recreation of Leyden Street at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth Mass. on Nov. 21, 2019.

Winslow wrote that Wampanoag leader Massasoit "with some 90 men" joined the colonists for a three-day feast. About half of the 102 Pilgrims who arrived the year before died the first winter, meaning native people would have nearly doubled the 50 or so Pilgrims at the 1621 event.

"I think a lot of times we really view (Thanksgiving) in a very Pilgrim-centered way," said David Landon, associate director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "But when you look at the historical accounts more closely, and combine that with the archaeology, it's really clear that there were way more native American people there than there were English people."

An aerial view of University of Massachusetts Boston students conducting an archaeological dig at Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

For the past eight years, Landon has led students at UMass on annual digs each spring around Burial Hill, a cemetery situated in the middle of downtown Plymouth where the Pilgrims' first settlement is buried. It's in preparation of the city's yearlong Plymouth 400 commemoration that kicks off in April.  

Even where researchers uncovered European pottery inside the remains of early Pilgrim homes, they often found Wampanoag pottery next to it. The association is strong enough to conclude they were used side-by-side. Landon said it indicates a high level of trade and exchange after the Pilgrims arrived.

A fragment of a tin-glazed plate recovered in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It's consistent with the type of pottery that would have been brought overseas from the Netherlands.

Plymouth wasn't simply an "English colony transplanted into Massachusetts," Landon said, but an unfamiliar environment where others were already living. It's a different picture than some 20th century paintings, for example, that depict a first Thanksgiving dominated by Pilgrims eating with a few Native Americans. 

"And the native people brought a lot of the food," Landon said. "That sometimes get lost in our simplified view of it."

Painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris of the first Thanksgiving with Native Americans and the Pilgrims in 1621.

Here are some other lesser-known Thanksgiving tidbits.

Why Thanksgiving traces to Plymouth

Years before the Mayflower arrived in the U.S., other colonists and native people, in what are now Florida, Virginia, Maine and Texas, held religious services to give thanks, according to researchers from the Plimoth Plantation, a nonprofit living history museum of early Plymouth.

But Plymouth is considered home of the first "Thanksgiving" because the push to make it an official U.S. holiday originated in New England in the 1830s. Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer and early Thanksgiving champion, led a campaign to reinstate the holiday, which had been proclaimed by early presidents but abandoned. 

In 1841, publisher Alexander Young printed a book with Winslow's letter that coined the 1621 harvest feast America's "First Thanksgiving." It stuck. President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving an official holiday in 1863. It was initially the last Thursday in November and later set as the fourth Thursday of the month. 

Thanksgiving versus thanksgiving

Winslow's letter detailed a successful first year of harvest for the Pilgrims, with 20 acres of corn and six acres of barley. Peas didn't fare so well. 

He does not use the term "Thanksgiving" but describes a three-day feast with Massasoit and his men to "rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors." It would have included games, military demonstrations, rejoicing and religious services,  said Tom Begley, Plimoth Plantation's executive liaison for administration, research and special projects.

Thanking God for their blessings and harvest, according to Begley, was in the tradition of the Pilgrims' Separatist Church.

"We talk about a capital T and a lowercase t thanksgiving," he said. "The lowercase thanksgiving is the religious day that Separatists and Puritan communities are marking. The capital T is what's become our holiday today."

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, said the first Thanksgiving wasn't the "Normal Rockwell" portraits of native people sitting cheerfully on the ground and being served pies.

He said the feast was a diplomatic effort for peace after the Wampanoag spotted Pilgrims in a field shooting muskets for practice. He said Massasoit sent 90 men their way — only to find out "what they were doing was planning on how to take us out."

"They said, 'Let's sit down and talk about peace,'" Cromwell said. "And so we sat down and came up with 75 years of peace — the longest-standing peace known within this country."

The turkey question

On Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, more than 1,000 students on school field trips spread across the plantation, about two miles from the original settlement. They peeked inside Pilgrim homes and a native campsite and talked to museum workers portraying Pilgrims living in Plymouth in the 1620s.

Living History Educators Audrey Dors and Erica Morris portray settlers for a visiting school group at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth Mass on Nov. 21, 2019.

"There were no formal invitations sent out — that we know of," Begley said of the 1621 feast, speaking in front of a replica Wampanoag hut, or wetu, erected last year at Plimoth Plantation to show the close proximity between homes of native people and Pilgrims.

Winslow's letter does not explicitly say their feast included turkey — nor does it mention pies or cake, for that matter — but refers to fowl. Turkey, duck and geese would have been plentiful in the area, Begley said. Winslow also wrote the native people went out and killed five deer for the feast.

The English colony's governor, William Bradford, in a diary called Plymouth Plantation, singled out the abundance of wild turkey near the settlement, Begley said. Kate Sheehan, a spokeswoman for Plimoth Plantation, said it suggests a "strong likelihood" of turkey at the feast.

Cromwell, however, doesn't believe turkey, including varieties the Pilgrims brought to America, would have been served. "Turkey was a European creature," he said.

Sheehan said pork, venison, rabbit, chicken, pork and goats also would have been available for the first Thanksgiving. Vegetables could have included traditional favorites like squash and pumpkin as well as carrots and turnip greens. Grapes and cherries also would have been available in the area, as would cod, lobster, mussels and other fish.

Inspired by the archaeological discoveries by the UMass group, Plimoth Plantation is currently exploring how Pilgrims would have cooked European dishes with the pottery of Native Americans. 

Few women at first feast

The 1621 feast was a male affair.

Only four married women were living in Plymouth when the feast was held, according to Plimoth Plantation, after so many died from sickness and disease during the colony's first year.

Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Culinarian tends a fire and prepares home-made sausages as she speaks to visitors in her persona as Elizabeth Warren, a colonist at Plimoth Plantation.

As for the 90 native people, the Winslow letter refers to Massasoit and his "men," but no women. The letter refers to "others" who attended the feast, but Begley said it's unclear who they were.

One of the Pilgrim women was Winslow's wife, Susanna White Winslow, according to research from the Pilgrim Hall Museum. The museum counts 53 Pilgrims overall: 22 men, nine adolescent boys, five adolescent girls and 13 young children. 

Preparing the meal, like any other day, Begley said, would have been the responsibility of the women and children. About 140 are thought to have joined the first Thanksgiving meal. 

In 400th year, Plymouth to highlight natives' story

The Pilgrims and native people first made contact in March of 1621, Begley said. Pilgrims met Samoset and then Squanto, who introduced Massasoit to the Pilgrims. He said the two sides came to an agreement of mutual alliance, which created the period of peace.

Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe, is credited with helping the Pilgrims grow corn. Seven years earlier, in 1614, Squanto was captured by English sailors, brought to Europe and sold as a slave in Spain. He escaped and returned to England before coming back to North America in 1619.

Cromwell said the English settlers brought concepts of capitalism, slavery and labor that were foreign to the Wampanoag.  

"That's what that 75 years of peace was about – to teach them our way in survival – but unfortunately the story turns and twists such a different way," he said. "Our women were raped, our children were murdered, our men were murdered. Villages were desecrated."

Organizers of Plymouth 400, a commemoration throughout 2020 that will include a restored Mayflower, say they have put a greater focus on the perspective of native people than past anniversaries. Events next year, including an ancestors walk and indigenous history conference, were organized in consultation with a committee of Wampanoag people.

Since 1970, Native Americans have held a National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving to recognize the democide of native people throughout American history.

"For the first time, in an anniversary about the Mayflower's arrival, native people are telling their story," said Michele Pecoraro, executive director of Plymouth 400. "We can't ask native people to be involved and then not talk about what happened to them."

Michele Pecoraro, Executive Director of Plymouth 400 in her office off Leyden St.

Reach Joey Garrison and on Twitter @joeygarrison