The celebration of what we call the “First Thanksgiving” was a lot like our modern day celebrations. The Pilgrims did not regard it as a Thanksgiving celebration, that event took place in 1623, but in 1621 they enjoyed a harvest festival with the Wampanoag Indians. Squanto, Samoset, and Massasoit chief of the Wampanoag had greatly contributed to the survival of the Plymouth Colony. Fifty Pilgrims and ninety Indians enjoyed three days of eating.
Our celebrations are similar in that there was a lot of food, much of which we still consider Thanksgiving staples. It was also similar in that it lasted too long. The more time we spend with our relatives there is often an increase in tension and annoyance. So too it was with Pilgrims and Indians. The Indians outnumbered the English by almost two to one, and by the third day the English were ready for the Indians to go home. Both sides hunted to keep the party going, but the most ominous moment came when the colonists put on a display of marksmanship. Many historians have interpreted this as show of force as the Pilgrims demonstrated the devastation caused by the musket.
In general Plymouth and the Wampanoag enjoyed positive relationships as they worked together against other Indian tribes, and because unlike other colonies there were not very many Pilgrims. Compared to the much larger Massachusetts Bay founded about a decade later Plymouth had only a few hundred citizens after decades of existence. Had they quickly pushed into Indian territory, and taken huge tracts of land, they would have had as violent an experience as any other colony. Instead Plymouth grew at a slow rate, and buoyed by the first Thanksgiving enjoyed a relatively peaceful relationship with their neighbors. The children of the celebrants of the first Thanksgiving, however, did engage in a war of destruction.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.