The unfamiliar American soil presented problems to the Pilgrims, but an Indian named Samoset greeted them and taught them how to fertilize best fertilize the soil. The results (months later) were spectacular, and the Pilgrims had much to be thankful for in the new land. About 100 Indians were invited to share in a thanksgiving feast of those first bumper crops of beans, squash, corn, barley, and peas. The Indians brought fresh venison and turkey and other fowl was provided by the Pilgrims, and enjoyed a meal together sitting on the ground under the bright fall foliage of autumn in New England.
The Pilgrims had much to be thankful for and they knew it. The steadying Hand of Providence led them safely across the ocean, and they had been blessed with strength to build houses and common buildings (the first was erected on Christmas Day, 1620). Next, they had to plant crops so that they might fulfill the measure of their divine commission and perpetuate their colony here in the New Canaan. This forested land with abundant flora and fauna was promised, indeed, but the soil was strange and successful horticulture was a conundrum. Enter the Indians.
It is true, as we all remember from lessons that were once taught in school, that the Pilgrims and the Indians sat down together and partook of the fruits of their labors, ate turkey and venison, and benefited from mutual instruction and genuine fellowship. This assembly was remarkable for many reasons; chief among them, perhaps, was the sensational account of Indian atrocities told to the Pilgrims while they tarried in Holland. The Indians, they were told, “delight to torment men in the most bloody manner that may be; flaying some alive with the shells of fishes, cutting off the members and joints of others by piecemeal and broiling on the coals.” With this image seared into the front of their minds, as soon as they arrived in America the Pilgrims were quick to erect barricades and post sentries to protect them from the natives they believed to be bloodthirsty savages.
In truth, in the beginning the Pilgrims and Indians did clash, sometimes violently. The fault, however, was never one-sided and the peace was always quickly restored. By the time of the harvest of 1621, several peaceful months had passed since the Pilgrims had any scrapes with the native inhabitants of the land, and they were feeling safe and secure and had redirected their minds and efforts toward harvesting their crops and building all the necessary infrastructure to support the thriving colony they designed and were determined to establish.
It was in this atmosphere of progress, peace, and planned prosperity that made possible one of the momentous greetings in American history. One Friday afternoon, a Pokanoket Indian calling himself Samoset walked up to a Pilgrim and announced, “Welcome, Englishmen!” Hardly the senseless savagery described in such vivid, gory detail by teachers in Dutch schools. As a matter of fact, the Indians genuinely welcomed the newcomers and demonstrated their goodwill by teaching the eager though ignorant European farmers a little something about American agriculture.
Samoset taught the Pilgrims that because of the unique chemical composition of the local Massachusetts soil, it was essential that the ground be fertilized to balance the soil and make it more nourishing to the corn and other crops planted by the Pilgrims. The fertilizer preferred by the Indians after years of experimenting was dead herring. The Pilgrims trusted the advice of Samoset, and the autumn of 1621 saw a bumper crop of corn, squash, beans, barley, and peas. It was a harvest worthy of giving thanks — thanks to God and thanks to the Indians who shared valuable information.
The precise date was not recorded, but sometime in late October or early November, about 100 Indians walked into the Pilgrim settlement (now occupied by several common buildings and log homes) carrying deer hunted specially for this harvest feast. The Pilgrims, about 50 in number, provided turkey (turkey from the New World was being eaten in England for about 40 years and was already a staple of English Christmas dinner), other fowl, deer, and beer. The meat was cooked on spits over open fires. The weather that season was crisp, but not cold, and the Pilgrims no doubt were fascinated by the bright fall foliage, a palette of colors not seen in England because of the perpetual dampness and lack of sunlight.
The congregation, Indians and Pilgrims, sat down in small groups on the ground and around small round tables and ate their dinner. The scene would not seem so foreign to us, their descendants, except for the fact that there were no forks (not in use in Massachusetts for another 70 years), no cranberry sauce, and no pumpkin pie. The food that was eaten was washed down with beer, the beverage of choice for saint and sinner in England because of the notoriously contaminated water available throughout the country. Thankfully, the bountiful barley crop in their new home made brewing easy.
As the foregoing demonstrates, there is much truth in the stories we have been taught regarding our Pilgrim Fathers and the First Thanksgiving they celebrated with the Indians that shared that small plot of earth with them. The fact that the Pilgrims succeeded where so many other erstwhile colonists had failed was due in large measure to the kindness, generosity, and trust shown to the Pilgrims by Massasoit and his small tribe. These men and women, believed to be savages but proven to be “very trustworthy, quick with apprehension, ripe witted, and just,” reached out to their neighbors and extended a hand of fellowship. So often, this hand was slapped away by frightened Europeans. The Pilgrims, themselves frequent victims of treachery and sabotage, took the hand of the Indians and shook it. They sat together, ate together, and grew together.
In light of the timely and invaluable aid proffered by the Indians, more than any other consideration it was the tireless and firm faith of our Pilgrim Fathers that kept them alive and animated their steadfast resolve to bloom where the Hand of the Almighty God had planted them, no matter how rocky, unknown, and hostile the soil.
In Thanksgiving, award-winning author Melanie Kirkpatrick journeys through four centuries of history, giving us a vivid portrait of our nation’s best-loved holiday. Drawing on newspaper accounts, private correspondence, historical documents, and cookbooks, Thanksgiving brings to life the full history of the holiday and what it has meant to generations of Americans.
Many famous figures walk these pages—Washington, who proclaimed our first Thanksgiving as a nation amid controversy about his Constitutional power to do so; Lincoln, who wanted to heal a divided nation sick of war when he called for all Americans—North and South—to mark a Thanksgiving Day; FDR, who set off a debate on state’s rights when he changed the traditional date of Thanksgiving.
Ordinary Americans also play key roles in the Thanksgiving story—the New England Indians who boycott Thanksgiving as a Day of Mourning; Sarah Josepha Hale, the nineteenth-century editor and feminist who successfully campaigned for Thanksgiving to be a national holiday; the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which founded Giving Tuesday, an online charity established in the long tradition of Thanksgiving generosity. Kirkpatrick also examines the history of Thanksgiving football and, of course, Thanksgiving dinner.
While the rites and rituals of the holiday have evolved over the centuries, its essence remains the same: family and friends feasting together in a spirit of gratitude to God, neighborliness, and hospitality. Thanksgiving is Americans’ oldest tradition. Kirkpatrick’s enlightening exploration offers a fascinating look at the meaning of the holiday that we gather together to celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November.
Nancy Davis recreates the excitement and wonder of the first Thanksgiving–how the pilgrims came to America and how the Native Americans taught them to plant and then joined them in a Thanksgiving feast. Parents can use the simple text and the bright, graphic illustrations of this lift-the-flap book to introduce a very young child to this holiday.
- Format: Board Book
- Publication Date: 9/21/2010
ForeWord 2013 Book of the Year Award Finalist (Adult Nonfiction, History) The Pilgrims’ celebration of the first Thanksgiving is a keystone of America’s national and spiritual identity. But is what we’ve been taught about them or their harvest feast what actually happened? And if not, what difference does it make? Through the captivating story of the birth of this quintessentially American holiday, veteran historian Tracy McKenzie helps us to better understand the tale of America’s origins―and for Christians, to grasp the significance of this story and those like it. McKenzie avoids both idolizing and demonizing the Pilgrims, and calls us to love and learn from our flawed yet fascinating forebears. The First Thanksgiving is narrative history at its best, and promises to be an indispensable guide to the interplay of historical thinking and Christian reflection on the meaning of the past for the present.