Site hosted by Build your free website today!

The Pilgrims'
First Thanksgiving



In 1621...after a very hard and devastating first year in the New World, the Pilgrim's fall harvest was very successful and plentiful.

The pilgrim Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native American Indians.  They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them in their celebration. 

There were about 140 people, including the 90 Indian men and about 50 Pilgrims at the three-day celebration.  Among the Native Americans was Chief Massasoit.  Games, singing and dancing were most likely part of the celebration.  The Indians probably demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow, with the Pilgrims demonstrating their musket skills.

Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, although we know it took place between September 21 or 22 and November 9, it is believed to have occurred in the middle of October.  It has been suggested that a most likely time would have been around Michaelmas (September 29), the traditional time for English harvest homes.

The Feast 

On the menu was sea bass, cod, wildfowl - duck, geese, or wild turkey; cornmeal; and five deer brought by the Indians.  Fruits and "herbs" (or vegetables, though this term was not in use at this time) were probably part of the meal also.  (Edible plants were known as sallet herbs, pot herbs or roots).

It is quite possible that shellfish, although plentiful and forming a large part of the Pilgrims' diet in the early years, was not a feature at the feast, as it was looked on as poverty fare and, hence, inappropriate for a feast.

The meats would have been roasted or boiled in traditional English fashion, and the fish boiled or perhaps grilled in the Indian manner.  Breads were skillet breads cooked by the fire or perhaps risen breads baked in a clay or cloam oven.  Fruit tarts were produced in the same way.  The herbs were either boiled along with the meats as "sauce" or used in "sallets."  A sallet was a vegetable dish either cooked or raw, and either "simple" or "compound"; that is, made from one ingredient or several.  The popularity of sallet or vegetable dishes was not great at this time and not always mentioned, although they were known to be served fairly frequently.

People sat at cloth-covered tables on benches and forms, with a few chairs for the more important men.  They ate with knives, a few spoons, but no forks.  Large linen napkins, about three feet square, were important since hands were used to both serve and eat.  Instead of dishes, trenchers (small square or round wooden plates) were used.  Sometimes two people would share one of these.  The food was taken from the serving bowls and platters, perhaps being cut on a trencher before being consumed, or just eaten without being cut.  Pottage (or soups) were eaten from bowls and the beverages were passed around in bowls, cups or other containers.

References to the Fall or Harvest Celebration

Although there is no exact record of the famous first harvest festival of 1621, referred to as the "First Thanksgiving," this event is mentioned in two quotes:

   (1) One in a letter by Edward Winslow included in Mourt's Relation. (Mourt refers to the name "G. Mourt" who signed the dedication at the beginning of the book.  It is thought that this was George Morton, who arrived on the ship Anne in 1623).

   (2) And the other from Governor William Bradford's more general comment on the first harvest, Of Plimoth Plantation.

Edward Winslow, Plymouth, in New England, this 11th of December, 1621

"Our Corne did proue well, & God be praysed, we had a good increase of Indian Corne, and our Barley indifferent good, but our Pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sowne, they came vp very well, and blossomed, but the Sunne parched them in the blossome; 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 fruit of our labors; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst vs, and among the rest their greatest King Massosoit, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed fiue deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed upon our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others.  And although it be not alwayes so plentiful, as it was at this time with vs, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty."
(A RELATION OR Journal of the beginning and proceedings of the English
Plantation settled at Plimoth in NEW ENGLAND, by certaine English
Aduenturers both Merchants and others, LONDON,Printed for
Iohn Bellamie,..1622, pp, 60-61)

Governor William Bradford

"They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; for some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which yey tooke good store, of which every family had their portion.  All ye somer ther was no wante.  And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degree).  And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they took many, besids venison, &c. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to yt proportion.  Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their friends in England, which were not fained, but true reports."
(William Bradford.  Bradford's History  Of Plimoth Plantation
BOSTON: Wright & Potter Printing Co., State Printers...
1898, p. 127.)


Feeding 50 colonists and at least 90 Native guests for three days presumably drew on the Pilgrims' experience with English harvest feasts.  Back in England, once the harvest labor was done, the inhabitants of a manor or a village commonly held a community-wide feast, where simple but plentiful fare, such as meat, bread and beer, was made available to all. 

Who Attended the 1621 "First Thanksgiving" ?

John Alden, 22, hired as cooper Samuel Fuller, Jr., 14*
Isaac Allerton, 35 Richard Gardiner, 22*
Bartholomew Allerton, 8 Stephen Hopkins, 40
Remember Allerton (girl), 6 Elizabeth Hopkins, 27
Mary Allerton, 4 Constance Hopkins, 16
John Billington, 41 Giles Hopkins, 14
Elinor Billington, 37 Damaris Hopkins (girl), 3
John Billington, 13 Oceanus Hopkins (boy), approx. 1
Francis Billington, 11 John Howland, 28, servant to Carver
William Bradford, 31 William Latham, 13, servant to Carver
William Brewster, 53 Edward Lester, 22*, servant to Hopkins
Mary Brewster, 52 Desire Minter (girl), 15*
Love Brewster (boy), 10 Richard Moore, 7, "put to" Brewster
Wrestling Brewster (boy), 7 Priscilla Mullins, 19 (est.)
Peter Browne, 21 Joseph Rogers, 17
Carver's maidservant, 24*, servant
to Carver
Henry Sampson, 17
Mary Chilton, 14 George Soule, 24, servant to Winslow
Francis Cooke, 38 Myles Standish, 37
John Cooke, 14 Elizabeth Tilley, 14
Humility Cooper (girl), 2 William Trevore, 23*, hired seaman
John Crackstone, 21 (est.) Richard Warren, 41
Edward Dotey, 21, servant 
to Hopkins
Resolved White (boy), 6
Francis Eaton, 29 Peregrine White (boy), approx. 11 months
Samuel Eaton, 1 Edward Winslow, 31
______ Ely, 23*, hired seaman Susanna Winslow, 31
Samuel Fuller, 41 Gilbert Winslow, 21


Notes:  Ages marked by an * are conjectural. 
(est.), estimated has a more factual basis than *.

Native Peoples who attended the 1621 event:

     The only name recorded is Massasoit.  However, it is almost certain that Squanto, the Pilgrims' translator, was also present.  Among other probable attendees are Hobbamock, Quadequina (Massasoit's brother), and Tokamahamon (mentioned in Mourt's Relation in June 1621, as a "special friend").  It is not known whether Samoset was still in the Plymouth area or had already returned to Maine.


The colonists would not have thought three days of feasting, recreation and Native American guests to be a true Christian thanksgiving.  Both the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Boston Puritans were strict Calvinist protestants who rejected the religious calendar of holidays that the English people inherited from the Middle Ages.  They believed that Christmas, Easter and the Saints' days were not part of a true Christian church and regarded them as man-made inventions which should be discarded.

Instead, they observed only the three religious holidays for which they could find New Testament justification:  the Sunday Sabbath, Days of Fasting and Humiliation, and Days of Thanksgiving and Praise.

Thanksgivings marked favorable circumstances or "mercies," and Fast Days unfavorable circumstances or "judgements." The faithful believed that God's pleasure or displeasure with his people was signaled by worldly events.  Thus, Thanksgivings and Fast Days were scheduled on this basis and were never assigned fixed positions in the calendar, always being declared in response to God's Providence.

Fast Days more often occurred in the spring, when there was nothing much to eat anyway, and Thanksgivings were usually declared after a harvest in the autumn.  They could be declared at any time by individual churches, towns or the colonial governments.  There could be more than one in a single year or none at all. 

Unlike the Catholic or Anglican Thanksgivings, they were never on Sunday, to avoid conflict with the Sabbath.  They usually fell on the weekday regularly set aside as "Lecture Day," which was Wednesday in Connecticut and Thursday in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay.  Lecture Day was a mid-week church meeting, often coinciding with the market day, when topical sermons were enjoyed by the colonists.

The following year, 1622, the Pilgrims harvest was not as bountiful, as they were still unused to growing the corn.  During the year, they also had shared their stored food with newcomers, causing them to run short of food.

The 3rd year brought a spring and summer that was hot and dry, with the crops dying in the fields.  Governor Bradford ordered a day of fasting and prayer and soon thereafter the rains came.  To celebrate, November 29th of that year was proclaimed a day of thanksgiving. 




NEXT ... Our Thanksgiving Day

back ... Thanksgiving Pages

back ... Table of Contents ~ MeMa's Holiday House