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The First Thanksgiving

A brief study about Thanksgiving with discussion questions.


On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England. The 102 passengers set off to seek religious freedom and fortune in the New World. The voyage took most of September and all of October, 66 days in all.

Storms threw them off their course and instead of reaching the Virginia Colony, which was their original destination, they landed in Provincetown Harbor in November, 1620. While on board the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor, the Pilgrims drew up the Mayflower Compact and all the men aboard the ship signed it on November 11,1620. This document created the way for the Pilgrims to govern themselves. After exploring the area, the Pilgrims decided to settle in Plymouth.

Massasoit was the chief of a local Indian tribe called the Wampanoags. The Wampanoags lived on Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and inland. In early spring of 1621, the Pilgrims met with Massasoit and agreed to live peaceably with the Wampanoags and to help each other. "Massasoit" in the Wampanoag language means "great leader" and "Wampanoag" means "People of the Dawn".

The first winter was filled with hardship. In the spring, however, with help from the Indians, the Pilgrims planted corn (maize), peas, and barley. They also hunted fowl and deer, searched for wild berries and fruits, and fished. In late fall after the corn harvest, the Pilgrims gave thanks by celebrating the first Thanksgiving feast with the Indians. When they ate, the Pilgrims did not use forks. They used a knife, spoon, a large napkin, and fingers. They also shared plates and drinking vessels. The Pilgrims did not eat cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving. They ate roasted wild fowl such as duck, goose, and turkey, cornmeal, cod, sea bass, and venison brought by the Indians.

The first harvest was very important to the Pilgrims. It gave them enough food to store for the long, cold winter so that they would not have to leave America. The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed by the Continental Congress in 1777. Thanksgiving Day is a reminder to be thankful for the courage of our forefathers and foremothers, which enabled them to build this nation into what it is today.

Discussion Questions

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Courtesy of William Francis Galvin,
Secretary of the Commonwealth
Citizen Information Service

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