The Background Leading Up To and
Story of the First Thanksgiving
When the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620, they landed on the
rocky shores of a territory that was inhabited by the Pokanoket Indians. The Pokanoket were part of the
Algonquin-speaking peoples, a large group that was part of the Woodland Culture area. These Indians lived in
villages along the coast of what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They lived in round-roofed houses called
wigwams. These were made of poles covered with flat sheets of elm or birch bark. Wigwams differ in construction
from tipis that were used by Indians of the Great Plains.
The Pokanoket moved several times during each year in order to get food. In the spring
they would fish in the rivers for salmon and herring. In the planting season they moved to the forest to hunt
deer and other animals. After the end of the hunting season people moved inland where there was greater
protection from the weather. From December to April they lived on food that they stored during the earlier
The basic dress for men was the breech clout, a length of deerskin looped over a belt in back
and in front. Women wore deerskin wrap-around skirts. Deerskin leggings and fur capes made from deer, beaver,
otter, and bear skins gave protection during the colder seasons, and deerskin moccasins were worn on the
feet. Both men and women usually braided their hair and a single feather was often worn in the back of the
hair by men. They did not have the large feathered headdresses worn by people in the Plains Culture
There were two language groups of Indians in New England at this time. The Iroquois were
neighbors to the Algonquin-speaking people. Leaders of the Algonquin and Iroquois tribes were called
"sachems". Each village had its own sachem and tribal council. Political power flowed upward from the people.
Any individual, man or woman, could participate, but among the Algonquins more political power was held by
men. Among the Iroquois, however, women held the deciding vote in the final selection of who would represent
the group. Both men and women enforced the laws of the village and helped solve problems. The details of
their democratic system were so impressive that about 150 years later Benjamin Franklin invited the Iroquois
to Albany, New York, to explain their system to a delegation who then developed the "Albany Plan of Union."
This document later served as a model for the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United
The title of Massasoit, or Great Leader, was in reference to the headship of the Pokanoket
Nation or Pokanoket Confederacy and was the Great Leader of the Sagamores and Sachems over the tribes and
villages within the Pokanoket Nation.
These Indians of the Eastern Woodlands called the turtle, the deer and the fish their
brothers. They respected the forest and everything in it as equals. Whenever a hunter made a kill, he was
careful to leave behind some bones or meat as a spiritual offering, to help other animals survive. Not to do
so would be considered greedy. The Pokanokets also treated each other with respect. Any visitor to a
Pokanoket home was provided with a share of whatever food the family had, even if the supply was low. This
same courtesy was extended to the Pilgrims when they met.
We can only guess what the Pokanokets must have thought when they first saw the strange ships
of the Pilgrims arriving on their shores. But their custom was to help visitors, and they treated the
newcomers with courtesy. It was mainly because of their kindness that the Pilgrims survived at all. The wheat
the Pilgrims had brought with them to plant would not grow in the rocky soil. They needed to learn new ways
for a new world, and the man who came to help them was called "Tisquantum" (Tis SKWAN tum) or "Squanto"
Squanto was originally from the village of Patuxet (Pa TUK et) and a member of the
Pokanoket Nation. Patuxet once stood on the exact site where the Pilgrims built Plymouth. In 1605,
fifteen years before the Pilgrims came, Squanto went to England with a friendly English explorer named John
Weymouth. He had many adventures and learned to speak English. Squanto came back to New England with Captain
Weymouth. Later Squanto was captured by a British slaver who raided the village and sold Squanto to the
Spanish in the Caribbean Islands. A Spanish Franciscan priest befriended Squanto and helped him to get to
Spain and later on a ship to England. Squanto then found Captain Weymouth, who paid his way back to his
homeland. In England, Squanto met Samoset of the Wabanake (Wab NAH key) Tribe, who had also left his native
home with an English explorer. They both returned together to Patuxet in 1620. When they arrived, the village
was deserted and there were skeletons everywhere. Everyone in the village had died from an illness the
English slavers had left behind. Squanto and Samoset went to stay with a neighboring village of
One year later, in the spring, Squanto and Samoset were hunting along the beach near Patuxet.
They were startled to see people from England in their deserted village. For several days, they stayed nearby
observing the newcomers. Finally they decided to approach them. Samoset walked into the village and said
"welcome," Squanto soon joined him. The Pilgrims were very surprised to meet two Indians who spoke
The Pilgrims were not in good condition. They were living in dirt-covered shelters, there was
a shortage of food, and nearly half of them had died during the winter. They obviously needed help and the
two men were a welcome sight. Squanto, who probably knew more English than any other Indian in North America
at that time, decided to stay with the Pilgrims for the next few months and teach them how to survive in this
new place, through the direction of Massasoit Ousamequin (the leader of the Pokanoket Nation). He brought
them deer meat and beaver skins. He taught them how to cultivate corn and other new vegetables and how to
build Indian-style houses. He pointed out poisonous plants and showed how other plants could be used as
medicine. He explained how to dig and cook clams, how to get sap from the maple trees, use fish for
fertilizer, and dozens of other skills needed for their survival.
By the time fall arrived things were going much better for the Pilgrims, thanks to the help
they had received. The corn they planted had grown well. There was enough food to last the winter. They were
living comfortably in their Indian-style wigwams and had also managed to build one European-style building
out of squared logs. This was their church. They were now in better health, and they knew more about
surviving in this new land. The Pilgrims decided to have a thanksgiving feast to celebrate their good
fortune. They had observed thanksgiving feasts in November as religious obligations in England for many years
before coming to the New World.
The Algonquin tribes held six thanksgiving festivals during the year. The beginning of the
Algonquin year was marked by the Maple Dance which gave thanks to the Creator for the maple tree and its
syrup. This ceremony occurred when the weather was warm enough for the sap to run in the maple trees,
sometimes as early as February. Second was the planting feast, where the seeds were blessed. The strawberry
festival was next, celebrating the first fruits of the season. Summer brought the green corn festival to give
thanks for the ripening corn. In late fall, the harvest festival gave thanks for the food they had grown.
Mid-winter was the last ceremony of the old year. When the Indians sat down to the "first Thanksgiving" with
the Pilgrims, it was really the sixth thanksgiving of the year for them!
Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit
Ousamequin, and their immediate families to join them for a celebration, but they had no idea how big Indian
families could be. As the Thanksgiving feast began, the Pilgrims were overwhelmed at the large turnout of
ninety relatives that Massasoit Ousamequin, Squanto, and Samoset brought with them. The Pilgrims were not
prepared to feed a gathering of people that large for three days. Seeing this, Massasoit Ousamequin gave
orders to his men within the first hour of his arrival to go home and get more food. Thus it happened that
the Indians supplied the majority of the food: Five deer, many wild turkeys, fish, beans, squash, corn soup,
corn bread, and berries. Captain Standish sat at one end of a long table and the Massasoit Ousamequin
sat at the other end. For the first time the Pokanoket people were sitting at a table to eat instead of on
mats or furs spread on the ground. The Indian women sat together with the Indian men to eat. The Pilgrim
women, however, stood quietly behind the table and waited until after their men had eaten, since that was
For three days the Pokanokets feasted with the Pilgrims. It was a special time of friendship
between two very different groups of people. A peace and friendship agreement was made between Massasoit
Ousamequin and Miles Standish giving the Pilgrims the clearing in the forest where the old Patuxet
village once stood to build their new town of Plymouth.
There is always more to the story and not all of it filled with hope and friendship, but
that part of the story is for another time to be told by the storytellers of our