Thoughts on “The First Thanksgiving”

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On this American Thanksgiving Weekend, I wanted to reflect on the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621 in Plymouth Massachusetts with the newly arrived English 50 surviving “Pilgrims” and about 90 members of the Wampanoag people, and in so doing, explore its meaning in historical context, and what it can tell us as a Nation today.

"TraditionalThanksgiving" by Ben Franske - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons -

“Traditional Thanksgiving” by Ben Franske – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons. Click photo for Copyright page.

Before we begin, we need to look at terminology.


Throughout this post, I will not use the term “Indian” when I am speaking of the Wampanoag people specifically. From what I understand, Native Americans don’t really mind the name, but it’s like calling the Pilgrims “Europeans.” They are, of course, but we know what nation they came from, so why not be more specific.


Those whom we call Pilgrims were Calvinist Separatist dissenters. That is, they rejected the Church of England (Anglicans) and, unlike the Puritans wanted to be separate from the C of E, rather than to reform it. From their own writings, it is clear that they had religious, and religious freedom motives for their trans-Atlantic voyage, as well as economic ones.

“Settlers”? “Colonists”? “Invaders”?

How should I refer to the Pilgrims? This isn’t about “political correctness,” it’s about the connotations (subtle meanings) of words.

  • If I use “settlers,” the connotation is that they were settling a wilderness. Most of North America (and indeed much of the Americas in general), were definitely not unworked wilderness. North American Natives, Meso American Peoples, and South American Peoples managed the land to a great extent, practicing land, crop, resource management in a number of sophisticated ways that in some cases go beyond what we are capable of today. The landscape that the Pilgrims came to was heavily managed, and had been settled by human beings with a high level of culture. In essence, the land the Pilgrims came to was a highly sophisticated, tended agricultural garden and game reserve. The Indians and Natives of North America were far from “savages.” The earliest Spanish (and English) letters and journals usually were admiring of the American Native peoples. It was only when it was found convenient to demonize them that they became “savages.”
  • If I use “Colonists,” I am guilty of only seeing this from a Eurocentric viewpoint. When people cross into the United States today without going through customs and set up shop, we don’t call them Colonists. We call them Undocumented Immigrants (Left) or Illegal Aliens (Right).
  • If I call them “Invaders,” which essentially they were, it rings a tone I didn’t want for this post, as I want to stay positive here.
  • So, I’ll stay with “The English,” for the most part, which is accurate.

“Chief”? “King”?

Edward Wilson, one of the English, referred to “their greatest king Massasoit.” In reality, Massasoit Sachem or Ousamequin was the Great Sachem of the Wampanoag people (Wôpanâak). “Massasoit” is a title, not a name. While he was a great male leader, many of the Natives of the North East had a complex governmental structure which involved both men and women in decision making, leadership and reciprocal work for the community. It would have come as a great surprise to the Great Sachem Ousamequin to be thought of like the King of England. Native society was far more participatory, and much more democratic than European societies of the time. We should recall that Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers and Mothers greatly admired the Haudenosaunee Confederation (commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy), and its founding document, Gayanashagowa or the Great Law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee. This “Constitution” influenced the U.S. Constitution.


The reason why the English probably called Ousamequin a “King” may be that, coming from a nation with a very stratified hierarchy with hereditary nobility and royalty, it was very hard for them to envision a society that lacked these. Further, Europeans liked having a “king” or “chief” to negotiate with, to give an air of legitimacy to their land purchases. In return, the “chief” gained standing by being friends with the Europeans, as well as guns and metal implements.

"Tribal Territories Southern New England" by Nikater; adapted to English by Hydrargyrum - Wikimedia Commons - Image:Wohngebiet_Südneuengland.png, as of 5 July 2006. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

“Tribal Territories Southern New England” by Nikater; adapted to English by Hydrargyrum – Wikimedia Commons – Image:Wohngebiet_Südneuengland.png, as of 5 July 2006. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It would appear that the concept of private ownership of land was foreign to Wampanoag people, as it was to many North American indigenous peoples in the 17th century. Each group had its own territory, but not privately owned land. In this, as in the ways of warfare, the influence of the English was to turn civilized Wampanoag to the barbaric ways of the old world.

Myth vs Reality

The myth of the First Thanksgiving I often saw portrayed in my youth were the Civilized English, dressed in their tradition vesture, welcoming scantily clad Indians and feeding them their sophisticated foods. Here is a typical picture:

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899).

The First Thanksgiving 1621, oil on canvas by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899).

What apparently happened was something like this:

When the English landed at what is now Plymouth in 1620, they were ill-equipped for survival. Tisquantum (Squanto), a member of the Patuxet people, a band under the Wampanoag agreed to assist them. He had a long experience with Europeans, having been across the Atlantic six times. He taught them effective agricultural techniques, and became a kind of ambassador with the Wampanoag. His own village of Patuxet, near modern-day Plymouth, had been virtually destroyed by epidemics in 1614 and 1620, brought by European diseases.

European explorers and traders had been frequenting the Northeast throughout the preceding century. The indigenous peoples were well aware of them, and interacted with them, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes not. It may well be that the inhabitants of the Northeast and the Maritimes had stories of the 11th century Viking expedition to “Vineland.” Old World diseases such as smallpox and typhus, measles, influenza, bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, mumps, yellow fever and pertussis devastated all of the Americas, which in 1491 may have had up to 100 million inhabitants. The epidemics probably killed 80%-90% of the indigenous population of the Americas.

Having successfully followed Tisquantum’s advice, the English had a good harvest in 1621. On April 1, 1621 the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag signed a mutual assistance treaty which the Wampanoag were happy with, as it guaranteed that the English would defend them against their enemies, and the Wampanoag would defend the English and both would live peacefully side by side.

"2011NativeAmericanRev" by United States Mint - United States Mint Historical Image Library. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

“2011NativeAmericanRev” by United States Mint – United States Mint Historical Image Library. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Probably around Michaelmas (September 29), the traditional English end of the Harvest, the Pilgrims held a Thanksgiving Feast as they were often want to do in the East of England where the majority of the English in New England came from (East Anglia: Suffolk, Essex, and parts of Norfolk and Cambridge, Lincolnshire and Kent).

As people with guns often do, the English shot into the air in celebration and set off cannon fire. The Great Sachem Ousamequin and his people heard the guns and were worried that something might be wrong with their treaty partners. Ousamequin set out with a party of 90 warriors to find out.

When they arrived, they found the 50 or so English celebrating. Probably through the translator Tisquantum, both sides learned what was up. Not having been born yesterday, Ousamequin and his men (there were probably no women, as this was a warrior band) camped nearby for several days to keep an eye on their new neighbors. They sent out hunting parties and brought game to contribute to the feasting, and the two groups ate and feasted together, peacefully but warily.

Probably one of the very few things Ronald Reagan ever said that I agreed with was “Trust but Verify.” This was the situation in 1621 Plymouth. Further, both the English and the Wampanoag cultures had the custom of Thanksgiving festivals, as virtually all human cultures do. Therefore the reason for the Harvest Feast was clear to both.

After the time of Feasting, the Wampanoag returned home, and the two groups continued for a while to live more or less harmoniously. Here is a good, modern Wampanoag memory of the events.

Errors in the Myth

So, to get back to the traditional myth, what are some of the things that are wrong?

  • In Wampanoag culture, the work was divided between men and women. Women ran all of the domestic business, including agriculture. The men fought, when necessary, and hunted. Both functions were seen as equally important. Therefore it is doubtful that there were any Wampanoag women at the Feast, since the Wampanoag expedition was martial in nature.
  • Is is highly unlikely that the Wampanoag warriors wore so little clothes in a late fall New England. In fact, the English very much appreciated the warmth and comfort of Wampanoag clothing and began to imitate their dress.
  • This was not a case of the “civilized” English (symbolized by tables and chairs) inviting their cultural inferiors (seated at their feet on the ground) to a feast. Most of the food they had grown was new to the English, and they probably had learned to prepare it from the Wampanoag. There probably were no turkeys, just game.
  • Our feast of Thanksgiving stems from the pronouncements of two Presidents: Washington and Lincoln. On October 3, 1789, Washington issued this proclamation:

“Now therefore do I recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being…That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for… the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge…”

While there were often Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States, this did not become a uniform, annual event throughout the United States at the end of November until October 3, 1863 when Lincoln issued his declaration:

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.”

The connection to the 1621 Thanksgiving is mentioned nowhere in these two declarations. That developed as the holiday sought roots in earlier times.

What Does Thanksgiving Teach Us Today?

Nothing here means that I don’t love Thanksgiving. I believe that it is our most important Holiday in the United States, and that it is quintessentially American. I do despise the stores that open on Thursday evening for their “Black Friday” vigils. Thanksgiving ought to be for family, friends, and charity only.


An attitude of gratefulness and thanksgiving is essential to the spiritual well-being of us all. A truly great mystic whom I had the honor of meeting back at Yale, Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB. One of his best known works is Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer. The book began a movement that is flourishing.

“Wäre das Wort Danke das einzige Gebet, das du je sprichst, so würde es genügen. If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough,” teaches Meister Eckhart. Thankfulness is essential for us, since all is gift. In the Greek of the New Testament, Thanksgiving is Eucharist, from Middle English eukariste, from Old French, from Late Latin eucharistia, from Ancient Greek εὐχαριστία ‎(eukharistíagratitude, giving of thanks), from εὖ ‎(good) + χάρις ‎(khárisgrace, favor). Eu is an adverbial use of neuter accusative singular of ἐΰς ‎(eǘsgood), ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *h₁su- (good). Kháris is from χαίρω (khaíro–to be happy, of good cheer), from Proto-Hellenic *kʰəřřō, from Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰer- (to enclose).

st elia, toronto

Eucharist is the central act of worship in Christianity. The heart of any Faith, Mysticism and Spirituality is Gratitude. We are “wrapped” in gratitude, which is thanks for everything we are and have.

The feast of Thanksgiving is therefore essential for the United States. And its ceremonial foods, mostly from plants and animals from the New World, are practically sacramental.

I very fondly remember having Thanksgiving Dinner at one of my Yale friend’s parents’ home in West Haven. We sat down to a full, wonderful Italian mean. I thought, “Well, it’s not traditional, but it’s good!” I ate my fill. Then the dishes were cleared, and the whole American Thanksgiving Feast was served! Yikes! Why didn’t someone warn me. I did OK though!

Knowing Thanksgiving’s history, and what really happened in 1621 Plymouth can give us hope for our world today.

It was a chance meal with two new allies, neighbors, watching each other’s backs, and watching each other, too. It was a meeting of equals. It was a way of moving forward for mutual security, and giving thanks to God (whether called YHVH or The Great Spirit) for all the gifts of life, including allies in a dangerous world. We celebrate the generosity of the Wampanoag and others who welcomed these strangers onto their land.

Our world is at a very dangerous juncture. We need all peoples of the world to band together to preserve our planet, to refuse to allow terror and war to prevail, and to move forward together, thankfully. In numbers there is strength, as shown by the ancient Roman symbol of the Fasces.

Fasces in the US House of Representatives

Fasces in the US House of Representatives

The acceptance of diversity shown by the Wampanoag, and their willingness to work together with the English are signs for us. The fact that the relationship between Europeans and Natives went horribly, tragically wrong, causing two of the two great karmic stains on our hemisphere (the destruction of indigenous cultures and peoples, and African and Indian Slavery) is a stark reminder of the evils that result from not behaving like neighbors and not seeing one’s self in the other’s face.

Let us finally undo the evils that these failures have caused, and move together, in our Nation, and our World, together in Thankfulness.

Thanks for reading,

Steven A. Armstrong
Tutor, Editor, Consultant

PS: My source material for much of this post comes from three remarkable books which I highly recommend and will be writing more about:

David Hackett Fischer. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Revised Edition. New York: Touchstone Books, 2007.

Charles C. Mann. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.


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