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8 Things to Know About the First Thanksgiving

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Many of us know Thanksgiving as a time of year where we gather with family and feast on a delicious meal. But did you know that the first Thanksgiving was a three-day feast? Or that the Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated together because they had a bountiful harvest? Here are eight fun facts to chew over during your holiday feast!

  1. Fact #1: The Pilgrims were seeking religious freedom.
    As practitioners of a Puritan branch of Protestantism, the Pilgrims had dissented from the official Church of England. On the ship the Mayflower, they’d voyaged from Plymouth, England, to America, in search of religious freedom and property.
  2. Fact #2: The journey to America was dangerous (and deadly).
    The Pilgrims arrived in November 1620—after the growing season, and after a nine-week voyage that had left half of the 102 passengers dead from cold and disease. More had died since, as the Pilgrims shuttled back and forth, from Mayflower to shore, to build crude storehouses and scrape together what provisions they could.
  3. Fact #3: A huge factor in the Pilgrims survival was an English-speaking Native American – whom you may know as Squanto.
    In the spring of 1621, the small band of Pilgrims struggling to survive at the Massachusetts Bay encountered a Native American named Tisquantum, whom the English settlers called Squanto, and who spoke the King’s English.
  4. Fact #4: Squanto knew John Smith and lived in England.
    Seven years prior, Tisquantum had been kidnapped by a rogue seaman, Thomas Hunt serving under English adventurer John Smith, of Pocahontas fame. Hunt had sold Tisquantum into slavery, but the Native American had managed to make his way to England, where he’d served as an interpreter for the Newfoundland Company. After returning in 1620 to his native land, Tisquantum was positioned as a natural mediator between the settlers and Native Americans.
  5. Fact #5: The Pilgrims made peace with their surrounding Native American neighbors.
    With the help of Tisquantum and other natives, they began to adapt to the new land. The English-speaking Native American helped them make peace with local tribesmen, including the powerful chieftain Massasoit. The Pilgrims also learned to grow corn, avoid poisonous plants, and draw sap from the maple tree. By the fall of 1621, they were no longer hungry, and had brought in a plentiful harvest.
  6. Fact #6: The Pilgrims and Native Americans ate together for the first Thanksgiving (and it lasted three days).
    The Pilgrims’ leader, Governor William Bradford, invited the Native Americans to a three-day feast of thanksgiving. Wrote Pilgrim Edward Winslow: “Our wheat did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn . . . Our harvest being gotten in . . . we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.”
  7. Fact #7: In the following years, Thanksgiving got even bigger and better.
    The first Thanksgiving wasn’t even the best one: In 1623, after a drought, and a fast—followed by rains and an even better harvest—the Pilgrims put on an even bigger fête. Wrote Bradford, “For which mercy, in time convenient, they set apart a day of thanksgiving.” Scrapping communal farming for individual plots of land, which gave the settlers greater incentives to sow and grow, also helped expand the harvest.
  8. Fact #8: Yes, they ate Turkey, too.
    They dined on a lot of the same foods we do today-- Along with venison, from deer supplied by the Native Americans, these first thanksgiving dinners included, Bradford recalled, a “great store of wild turkeys.” The Pilgrims and Native Americans put on true feasts. They offered waterfowl; seafood, like cod, lobster, and clams; corn, barley, and wheat; chestnuts and walnuts; squash; fruit, like gooseberries and strawberries; and vegetables, like radishes, carrots, leeks, and onions…”

From A Patriot’s A to Z of America, Ed Moser, Turner Publishing