The Pilgrims were a Christian congregation that fled from England in order to avoid religious persecution from the Church of England. In June 1619, the Pilgrim’s congregation obtained a land patent from the London Virginia Company, allowing them to settle in the New World at the mouth of the Hudson River. They chartered a private sailing ship called the Mayflower to make the voyage.
The Mayflower was originally destined for the mouth of the Hudson River, near present-day New York City, at the northern edge of England's Virginia colony, which itself was established with the 1607 Jamestown Settlement. However, the Mayflower went off course as the winter approached, and remained in Cape Cod Bay. The Mayflower made an attempt to sail south to the designated landing site but ran into trouble in a shallow area of shoals between Cape Cod and Nantucket Island. With winter approaching and provisions running dangerously low, the passengers decided to return north and abandon their original landing plans.
The Mayflower anchored at Provincetown Harbor on November 11. The group remained on board the ship through the next day, a Sunday, for prayer and worship. The immigrants finally set foot on land at what would become known as Plymouth Rock near Provincetown on November 13, 1620.Edward Percy Moran (American artist, 1862-1935) Pilgrim's Landing (early 1900s), oil on canvas, 23" x 29". Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Mass.During the first winter in the New World, the Mayflower colonists suffered greatly from diseases like scurvy, lack of shelter and general conditions on board ship. 45 of the 102 emigrants died the first winter and were buried on Cole's Hill. Additional deaths during the first year meant that only 53 people were alive in November 1621 to celebrate the harvest feast which modern Americans know as "The First Thanksgiving." Of the 18 adult women, 13 died the first winter while another died in May. Only four adult women were left alive for the Thanksgiving.The Pilgrims biggest concern was attack by the local Native American Indians. But the Patuxets were a peaceful group and did not prove to be a threat.
On March 16, 1621, what was to become an important event took place, an Indian brave walked into the Plymouth settlement. The Pilgrims were frightened until the Indian called out "Welcome, Englishmen" (in English!). His name was Samoset and he was the first Native American to make contact with the Pilgrims. Samoset strolled straight through the middle of the encampment at Plymouth Colony and greeted them in English, which he had begun to learn from an earlier group of Englishmen fishermen.
Samoset was a member of an Abenaki tribe that resided at that time in what is now Maine, Samoset was a sagamore (subordinate chief) of his tribe and was visiting a local Indian chief. After spending the night with the Pilgrims Samoset left the colony. He soon returned with another Indian named Squanto who spoke better English. Squanto told the Pilgrims of his voyages across the ocean and his visits to England and Spain. It was in England where he had learned English.
Squanto's importance to the Pilgrims was enormous and it can be said that they would not have survived without his help. It was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to tap the maple trees for sap. He taught them which plants were poisonous and which had medicinal powers. He taught them how to plant the Indian corn by heaping the earth into low mounds with several seeds and fish in each mound. The decaying fish fertilized the corn. He also taught them to plant other crops with the corn.
The harvest in October was very successful and the Pilgrims found themselves with enough food to put away for the winter. There was corn, fruits and vegetables, fish to be packed in salt, and meat to be cured over smoky fires.
The Pilgrims had much to celebrate, they had built homes in the wilderness, they had raised enough crops to keep them alive during the long coming winter, they were at peace with their Indian neighbors. They had beaten the odds and it was time to celebrate.
The Pilgrim Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day of thanksgiving to be shared by all the colonists and the neighboring Native Americans. They invited Squanto and the other Indians to join them in their celebration. Their chief, Massasoit, and 90 braves came to the celebration which lasted for 3 days. They played games, ran races, marched and played drums. The Indians demonstrated their skills with the bow and arrow and the Pilgrims demonstrated their musket skills. Exactly when the festival took place is uncertain, but it is believed the celebration took place in mid-October.
While not the first thanksgiving of any sort on the continent, the traditional origin of modern Thanksgiving in the United States is generally regarded to be the celebration that occurred at the site of Plymouth Plantation, in Massachusetts, in 1621. The Wampanoag Native Americans helped the pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts cultivate the land and fish, saving them from starvation. This harvest celebration occurred early in the history of what would become one of the original Thirteen Colonies that later were to become the United States.
Detail from "The First Thanksgiving" (1914), by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850-1936), oil on canvas, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts.Happy Thanksgiving