Firsts, Thanks and Misgivings

Firsts, Thanks and Misgivings

26 November 2020

The story of Thanksgiving is surprising. Like much of the Mayflower story, it blurs fact and fiction, hope and despair, time and tradition.

Thanksgiving is often understood to have been first celebrated in the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts in the autumn of 1621. Yet it wasn’t. The harvest recorded by the surviving passengers of the Mayflower was not a Thanksgiving as they would have understood it, nor was it the first in English colonial America.

Four hundred years ago, Thanksgiving was a religious event, and marked by fasting not feasting. Recent research suggests that the first Thanksgiving of this kind was celebrated by new English settlers at Berkeley, Virginia in 1619. They were Puritans giving thanks for their safe arrival on the banks of the James River. Yet even their first Thanksgiving is contested with earlier claims for other English colonists at Jamestown in 1610, at Popham in Maine in 1607, by Spanish settlers at St Augustine in 1564 and even perhaps in Texas in 1541. Yet despite earlier evidence of religious Thanksgivings, fasts not feasts, the event in the Plymouth colony in 1621 has come to symbolise the First Thanksgiving. Why? Is it the magic of the Mayflower myth or just a story, which has been adapted to bring a sense of celebration to subsequent centuries?

Two sources record the successful harvest of 1621. William Bradford in Of Plimoth Plantation records, ‘They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plent…’ He also mentions wild turkeys. Edward Winslow, describes the impact of the harvest in his book, Mourt’s Relation. ‘And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.’

Description of first harvest in Mourts Relation

With half of the original Mayflower passengers dead, and their colony struggling to survive, this autumnal abundance mattered. Winslow tells us the settlers hunted, practicised military drills, and ‘for three dayes we entertained and feasted’. During this time, he says they were joined by 90 Wampanoag men, including their leader Oosamequan, who brought five deer. Neither Bradford nor Winslow write extensively about the event, nor do they refer to it as Thanksgiving. Neither explains how, or why, the English and the Wampanoag spent this time together. While this is part of Mayflower history, there is also mystery. While Wampanoag oral tradition remembers giving thanks for harvests over thousands of years, and their knowledge ensured the success of the 1621 crop, their history does not recall the event at all. For the colonists, it was not until 1623 that William Bradford recorded the colony’s first Thanksgiving, by name, and in the religious sense they understood. It followed a drought.

‘They set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. That same evening it began to rain with such sweet and gentle showers as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God… For which mercy, in time convenient, they also set apart a day of thanksgiving.’

It seems that first Thanksgivings are as plentiful and traditional as turkeys. In 1777, the 13 American states proclaimed a Thanksgiving – united in gratitude for a first year of freedom from George’s III’s Britain. In 1789, George Washington was the first President to make a Thanksgiving proclamation. That’s a tradition now, initiated by Abraham Lincoln, and sustained by all subsequent holders of the highest office. In 1863, during the American Civil War, Lincoln proclaimed an annual national Thanksgiving. It was the first in an unbroken series of Presidential proclamations.

1970 saw another first. That year marked the 350th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. It also heralded the First National Day of Mourning – on the same day as Thanksgiving. Organised by the United American Indians of New England in response to the censorship of Wamsutta/Frank James’ speech by the commemoration committee, it continues today. This year marks its 50th anniversary. The National Day of Mourning reminds us all of the impact of colonisation on the Wampanoag people and the living legacy of Mayflower history.

National Day of Mourning plaque

Jo Loosemore, Curator of Mayflower 400: Legend & Legacy

Image 1: Jennie A. Brownscombe’s ‘The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth’ (1914). Pictures Now / Alamy Stock Photo.

Image 2: Description of the first harvest at Plymouth in Mourt’s Relation by Edward Winslow, 1622

Image 3: Melissa Doroquez from in Wikimedia Commons, “National Day of Mourning Plaque,” (license CC BY-SA 2.0).