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First Thanksgiving


The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (Detail)

Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914

Our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours...

–Edward Winslow

The Pilgrims wanted to celebrate their harvest according to English custom with a festival of food and revelry. To prepare for the feast, the men hunted wild game birds for several days. According to Wampanoag history, the neighboring tribe heard about the tremendous gunfire, thought the Pilgrims were under attack, and came to their aid. Massasoit and 90 warriors arrived at the settlement ready for battle and instead joined the 53 surviving colonists in the harvest celebration.


Outnumbering the colonists, the Wampanoag contributed the venison of five deer. Besides the wild game, the menu included cod and bass and the harvested wheat, corn, and barley. Shellfish and native nuts, groundnuts, and berries were plentiful. In addition, the colonists had probably brought seeds to plant English herbs and vegetables, such as parsley, onions, carrots, and turnips. With no oven or flour and a likely depleted sugar supply, the feast would not have included baked desserts.

The feast was not one big sit-down meal, as we know Thanksgiving today. The Wampanoag had walked over 40 miles to reach the colony and would not have left after a single meal. Rather, the Pilgrims and Wampanoag feasted for three whole days. Between meals, they amused themselves with "recreations" that probably included games and displays of strength and skill. They also demonstrated their weapons skills with muskets and bows and arrows.

Massasoit and his warriors returned home when the feast ended, and the Pilgrims returned to their daily work. Thus the Pilgrims celebrated their good health, the fortune of enough food to carry them through the approaching winter, and their hope for the new year.


The First Thanksgiving–1621

by Karen Rinaldo, 1995


The Pilgrims did not have forks. They ate with spoons, knives, their fingers, and large napkins.


Plates and drinking cups were often shared at the table.


The largest meal of the day, called dinner or "noon-meat," was eaten at noon. Supper was a small evening meal. Breakfast usually consisted of leftovers.


While the Pilgrims had a set eating schedule, the Wampanoags ate whenever they were hungry from pots of food that simmered all day long.


In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.


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