The story behind the first U.S. Thanksgiving

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth," as painted and imagined by Jennie A. Brownscombe in 1914.

The first recorded Thanksgiving feast in the United States was in 1621 at the village of Plymouth, Massachusetts.*

In September 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England.  The ship carried 102 passengers in search of religious freedoms, and the possibility of land and financial prosperity in the New World.

Sixty-six days after it set sail from England, the Mayflower arrived near the tip of Cape Cod. A month later, the Mayflower crossed the Massachusetts Bay, where they established a village at Plymouth.

Throughout most of the brutal winter of 1620, the Mayflower remained docked in the Massachusetts Bay; many of the colonists stayed onboard the ship, where they suffered from scurvy and outbreaks of contagious diseases.

When spring 1621 arrived, only half of the original passengers were still alive.

The remaining settlers – now referred to as pilgrims – set foot on land in March 1621, when they were approached by an English-speaking Abenaki Indian. This Indian introduced the pilgrims to a man essential to their survival that winter, a Pawtuxet Indian named Squanto.

Squanto taught the malnourished and weak pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in the rivers, and avoid the poisonous plants. He also helped them form an alliance with the nearby Wampanoag Indian tribe.

After the pilgrims' first successful corn harvest later that year, Governor William Bradford organized a three-day celebratory feast, and invited the neighboring Wampanoag Indian tribe. Records show that 53 colonists and 90 Wampanoag attended the first Thanksgiving.

Although the term "Thanksgiving" was not used to describe the event until the 18th century by President George Washington, it is believed that this meal was the first of its kind in the United States.

Records do not reveal what exactly was eaten at the first Thanksgiving feast, but pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow journaled that Governor Bradford sent four men on a "fowling" mission and that the Wampanoag guests brought five deer to the feast.

Historians believe that the first Thanksgiving did not feature desserts like today, because the pilgrims had a depleted sugar supply and no oven. Aside from venison, the feasters may have eaten: duck, swan, goose, shellfish, lobster, pumpkin, turkey, stuffing, and corn.

Since its humble beginnings in 1621, Thanksgiving has become synonymous with one thing: turkey.

According to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving, totaling over 46 million consumed turkeys.

Information courtesy

*Note: As described on a state historical marker dedicated on Nov. 1, 2013, the first English Thanksgiving may have happened in Virginia, but did not include Indians, as in the pilgrim accounts. The marker states that on Dec. 14, 1619, 35 men aboard the ship Margaret arrived near the Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County. According to some historians, Capt. John Woodlief, a member of the Virginia Company, with 35 men to take charge of Berkeley Hundred,” and Capt. John Woodlief instructed that the day of his ship's arrival “be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to almighty God.” 

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.