Many people in America credit the Pilgrims with inventing Thanksgiving, but did they? Apparently the idea of spending a day giving thanks to God stemmed from the days of the English Reformation. The newly formed Protestant church had only 27 holidays. The Catholic church had 95. The Catholic church holidays required church attendance, often meaning people missed work and thus a day’s wages, and at times, the congregation had to pay for expensive celebrations.
The Puritans wanted an end to all holidays and instead proposed days of fasting for floods and plagues and other unfortunate events, and days of thanksgiving for superior battle performance, important births and so on. God was always part of these days. Other explorers had Thanksgiving celebrations when arriving in America and those celebrations also included a religious ceremony. The first Pilgrim celebration did not include a religious service, but rather thanks to God.
The First Thanksgiving
According to the Plimoth Plantation website and Edward Winslow (Mourt’s Relation: D.B. Heath, ed. Applewood Books. Cambridge, 1986 p.82), not much is known about the first Thanksgiving except that it lasted for three days. The remaining 45 passengers from the Mayflower, 90 Wampanoag men, Squanto, Samoset and Chief Massasoit were in attendance. The Pilgrim men brought fowl like goose and possibly wild turkey, the Wampanoag men brought 5 deer, and the 4 women who were still living likely cooked root vegetables with local spices.
Pies were not on the menu as there were no ovens, sugar was in very short supply and there wasn’t any wheat flour. What? No pies? No football? No parades? What were they thankful for? Let us take a step back and see.
The 102 passengers on The Mayflower were Englishmen that had moved to the Netherlands to escape religious persecution by the Church of England. They found they were still pursued even in their new country and decided to sail across the ocean to get away from the long reach of the King of England. Some passengers were seeking land and prosperity they could not achieve in England, but most left for religious reasons.
The Mayflower first stopped at what is now Provincetown, but did not find a suitable spot to settle in. The exploration party angered the Native Americans when they took corn from a burial site thinking they could plant it. They also took corn and beans from an empty house and then ended up shooting and killing some of the Native Americans that came after them. This also motivated them to look for another location.
The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth and settled at an abandoned Native American site called Pawtuxet as it provided some flat land and a defensible position. They arrived in November and had to try to build a settlement despite the cold and stormy weather. The men would go off the ship during the day to build houses and a wooden structure to hold cannons, some would remain on shore at night for protection while the women, children and sick stayed on the ship. Over the course of the cold and inhospitable winter, 45 died due to illness, exposure and poor conditions. During the next several months, a relationship was formed between the survivors and an English speaking native named Squanto.