What Happened on the First Thanksgiving?

What is the significance of the First Thanksgiving? Remove the feast, remove the traditions, and all the cooking, and at its very core is giving thanks. This national holiday remains the most widely celebrated and unique occasion in the United States.

Christianity.com Contributing Writer
Updated Dec 29, 2020
What Happened on the First Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is one of the most celebrated national holidays in the United States of America. During this day, people from the US celebrate and give thanks for what they have by feasting usually with roast turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and a huge pumpkin pie.

This holiday that happened nearly 400 years ago, is one of the holidays that people look forward to the most because they can be with their family and talk about how blessed they have been in the present year.

But what really is the history of the First Thanksgiving? What is its evolution to the present day, and what is the significance of this day to every American?

Hardships of the First Thanksgiving

Historically, the First Thanksgiving happened after a series of brutal misfortunes and obstacles experienced by the Pilgrims during their voyage to the “New World.”

In September 1620, the Mayflower sailed from England to the promised New World. There were 102 passengers aboard the ship and these passengers survived 66 days of treacherous seas.

Finally, they arrived at Cape Cod, which was not their original destination, and then crossed to Massachusetts Bay where they were able to establish was it to be known as the village of Plymouth.

Because of this, most of the passengers aboard the Mayflower stayed on board and suffered diseases. Because of this, only half of the crew survived. In March, they finally moved inland and were visited by the English speaking, Abenaki.

Several days later, Squanto, who was a member of another tribe called Pawtuxet and a kidnapping survivor of an English sea captain, taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate corn, extract sap from maple trees, catch fish in rivers, and filter poisonous plants from their farm. Squanto’s intervention was very fortuitous as many were suffering from malnutrition.

Additionally, Squanto was also able to help the Pilgrims forge an alliance with a more powerful tribe called the Wampanoag. The alliance was momentous and still remains the only historical example of a good alliance between the European colonists and Native Americans.

A Thanksgiving for the First Bounty

Finally, after so many long months of less to no food, the Pilgrims were able to harvest their crops. Governor William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrims, organized a feast for this momentous event.

This was recorded to have taken place in the autumn of 1621 in Plymouth. During this day, it was recorded that the celebration was held with the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.

They shared the autumn harvest and the feast lasted for three days as Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, who wrote:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty. 

Although this celebration was not acknowledged as Thanksgiving that day, it was declared as the national holiday Thanksgiving Day by President Abraham Lincoln during the height of the Civil War.

The First Thanksgiving and Gratitude

While the First Thanksgiving may seem very simple, the Pilgrims actually experienced so much turmoil along the way that it wasn’t as straightforward as we may like to tell it.

Many have argued about its relevance to the Native Americans and accounts of such history are sometimes contested. This gives the contemporary Thanksgiving a different perspective, and for this reason, some Americans do not follow the tradition of the First Thanksgiving.

But what is the significance of the First Thanksgiving? Remove the feast, remove the festivals, and the cooking, the First Thanksgiving was always about giving thanks.

It was a very momentous movement for the Pilgrims together with the Wampanoag who helped them achieve their fruitful harvest, and it was a moment to thank God above for such blessings.

The Pilgrims were Christians seeking religious freedom in the New World and having a feast for gratitude was one of the ideological rituals that they were accustomed to. It can be said that the Wampanoag had a similar ritual, as well.

And because of their unity, both communities, despite the differences in their religions and beliefs, were able to celebrate gratitude towards the blessings received.

Conclusion of the First Thanksgiving

The First thanksgiving tells us a story of overcoming hardships, greeting bounty with thanksgiving, unity, and that thankfulness is not bound by one ideological ritual, rather, it transcends communities, the color of our skins, and time.

This is why, despite the argument about the historical facts of the First Thanksgiving, this national holiday remains the most widely celebrated occasion in the United States.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Bogdan Kurylo

Glory Dy has been a content creator for more than 10 years. She lives in a quiet suburb with her family and four cats.


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