Five Questions about the First Thanksgiving

How do we know about the first Thanksgiving?
The first known written description of the Pilgrims’ first “Thanksgiving” is a letter written by Edward Winslow months after the event. The incident possibly took place in late September or early October of 1621, and the first account was written down by Winslow in a letter dated December 11, 1621. The letter was published as part of Relation or Iournall of the beginning and proceddings of the English Plantation settled at Plimoth in New England, by certain English Aduenturers both Merchants and others (London, 1622), a book that is also known as Mourt’s Relation. The book was written by both Edward Winslow and William Bradford, but somewhere along the way authorship was falsely attributed to George Morton aka George Mourt, hence, Mourt’s Relation.

A second description of the first Thanksgiving was given by William Bradford in his work Of Plimouth Plantation which he wrote between 1630 and 1651. That means that Bradford recorded the events of the day at a minimum of nine years after it happened.

William Bradford Thanksgiving
A portion of William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation describing the first Thanksgiving (1630-1651).

Thankful for what?
The Pilgrim settlers had a lot to be thankful for in the fall of 1621. They survived the Atlantic Ocean crossing of 1620 to arrive on the New England coast in the dead of winter. Starting in December 1620, they attempted to scratch out a settlement within the ruins of Patuxent, an empty Indian settlement. Patuxent was empty because of a disease, probably smallpox, wiped out the native inhabitants a few years before the Pilgrims’ arrival. The Pilgrims called the new settlement Plimouth Plantation. Living in the shadows of old Patuxent, half the colony’s settlers died from disease, malnutrition, and cold during the first winter of 1620-1621.

Notwithstanding the frosty beginnings, the colony began to thrive in the spring and fall of 1621. The 53 surviving settlers built seven houses for private use and four common buildings for company use. They planted 20 acres of corn, six acres of peas, and six acres of barley. Plymouth not only survived, it started to grow and blossom.

How did they prepare for Thanksgiving?
In preparation for celebrating the harvest in the fall of 1621, Governor William Bradford sent four men to hunt fowl. In just one day, the hunters managed to kill enough fowl to feed the colony for a week. During the “recreations” in the lead up to the festivities, the roughly 20 men of the colony prepared for war by drilling (“exercised our Armes”).

Then Massasoit, the sachem of the Wampanoag tribe, arrived at Plimouth Plantation accompanied by 90 of his Wampanoag Indians. According to Mourt’s Relation, the Indians killed five deer and presented them as gifts. The Pilgrims hosted the Wampanoag over a three-day feast. Bradford added in Of Plimouth Plantation that “besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison

Who attended?
Roughly 50 English Pilgrims and 90 Wampanoag Indians attended the first Thanksgiving. Despite all the modern depictions of Pilgrims outnumbering the Indians, the Pilgrims were outnumbered almost 2:1.

What was Recorded?

“Many of the Indians coming amongst vs, and amongst the rest their greated King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed fiue Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and vpon the Captaine, and others.”

Frontpiece of Mourt’s Relation (London 1622)

In addition to the description of the first Thanksgiving in his letter, Winslow described the food the Pilgrims ate throughout the year including the crops they planted and the seafood and fruit they harvested from the wild. Additionally, Winslow described the local Indians, the Pilgrims’ response to a false alarm French attack, an English resupply ship, and provided advice for future colonists.

On Plimouth Plantation recorded William Bradford’s interpretation of the history of the Pilgrims from 1608 to 1647, covering their time in England, the Netherlands, and Massachusetts. The portion pertaining to the first Thanksgiving is just one paragraph in a 500 + page handwritten text. I uploaded a color PDF of the document that I originally downloaded from the State Library of Massachusetts. (found here William Bradford Of Plimouth Plantation)

Intro to William Bradford On Plimouth Plantation
Intro to William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation


  1. You mentioned that Patuxant was abandoned perhaps by smallpox. I thought the current thinking was that the Europeans brought the disease with them – does this suggest earlier Europeans, local sources of smallpox, or a chicken/egg situation?

    1. Europeans and Indians in the New England region were in contact for at least 100 years before the Pilgrims arrived in the area. A series of diseases moved up and down the coast from New England to Maritime Canada between 1614 and 1620 devastating the region’s Native Americans – and that is probably what wiped out Patuxent. A common theme in European travel narratives from the period is Europeans who first encountered Indians were impressed by their population – but Europeans engaging in second or third encounters remarked on the abandoned villages and the small populations hinting that a disease must have devastated the Indians.

      The Pilgrims’ arrival at Patuxent was definitely not first contact for the Indians in the region. One of the Patuxent Indians associated with the Pilgrims’ story, Squanto, was captured by an English venture in 1614 and sold into slavery in Spain. Squanto was ransomed/purchased from Spain and brought to England where he served an investor in North American ventures. Squanto lived in Spain, England, and Newfoundland for years before returning to New England to find his village empty and all his friends and family dead. He stayed at/near Patuxent to mourn his relatives. When he first approached the Pilgrims, Squanto spoke to them in English.

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