History of the First Thanksgiving

The first Thanksgiving was a harvest celebration held by the pilgrims of Plymouth colony in the 17th century.

Many myths surround the first Thanksgiving. Very little is actually known about the event because only two firsthand accounts of the feast were ever written.

The first account is William Bradford’s journal titled Of Plymouth Plantation and the other is a publication written by Edward Winslow titled Mourt’s Relations.

What is known is that the pilgrims held the first Thanksgiving feast to celebrate the successful fall harvest. Celebrating a fall harvest was an English tradition at the time and the pilgrims had much to celebrate.

The 53 pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving were the only colonists to survive the long journey on the Mayflower and the first winter in the New World. Disease and starvation struck down half of the original 102 colonists.

These pilgrims made it through that first winter and, with the help of the local Wampanoag tribe, they had a hearty supply of food to sustain them through the next winter.

When Was the First Thanksgiving Celebrated?

Although the modern day Thanksgiving feast takes place on the fourth Thursday of November, the first Thanksgiving did not. This feast most likely happened sometime between September and November of 1621.

No exact date for the feast has ever been recorded so one can only assume it happened sometime after the fall harvest. The celebration took place for three days and included recreational activities.

Who Was at the First Thanksgiving?

Guests at the feast included 90 Wampanoag Indians from a nearby village, including their leader Massasoit.

"The First Thanksgiving 1621," oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, circa 1912-1915
“The First Thanksgiving 1621,” oil painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, circa 1912-1915

One of these Indians, a young man named Squanto, spoke fluent English and had been appointed by Massasoit to serve as the pilgrim’s translator and guide. Squanto learned English prior to the pilgrim’s arrival after he was captured by English explorers and spent time in Europe as a slave.

Neither Bradford or Winslow’s account indicate whether the Indians were actually invited to the celebration or how they learned of it. Many historians have simply assumed they were invited. Edward Winslow’s account merely states:

“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the company almost a week, at which time amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

The names of the pilgrims present at the First Thanksgiving:


Eleanor Billington
Mary Brewster
Elizabeth Hopkins
Susanna White Winslow

John Alden
Isaac Allerton
John Billington
William Bradford
William Brewster
Peter Brown
Francis Cooke
Edward Doty
Francis Eaton
[first name unknown] Ely
Samuel Fuller
Richard Gardiner
John Goodman
Stephen Hopkins
John Howland
Edward Lester
George Soule
Myles Standish
William Trevor
Richard Warren
Edward Winslow
Gilbert Winslow

Teenagers and Children:
Mary Chilton
Constance Hopkins
Priscilla Mullins
Elizabeth Tilley
a maidservant name Dorothy
Francis & John Billington
John Cooke
John Crackston
Samuel Fuller
Giles Hopkins
William Latham
Joseph Rogers
Henry Samson
Bartholomew, Mary & Remember Allerton
Love & Wrestling Brewster
Humility Cooper
Samuel Eaton
Damaris & Oceanus Hopkins
Desire Minter
Richard More
Resolved & Peregrine White

What Did the Pilgrims Eat on the First Thanksgiving?

Many dishes served during modern Thanksgiving meals were not present at the first Thanksgiving. The colonists didn’t have potatoes, nor did they have butter or flour necessary for making pies. The pilgrims hadn’t even built their first oven by the time of the first Thanksgiving. Cranberries might have been served but only for color or tartness, instead of as a sweet sauce.

Neither Bradford or Winslow’s writing reveal what was actually served at the first Thanksgiving meal, besides fowl and deer, but guesses can be made based on the types of food they often wrote about such as mussels, lobsters, grapes, plums, corn and herbs.

There is no actual proof that the colonists ate turkey at the feast either. Turkey wasn’t even associated with the Thanksgiving holiday until an editor of a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book came across Edward Winslow’s writings about the feast in the 1840s.

When this editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, read Winslow’s writings, she decided to bring this historic celebration back to life. Up until then, Thanksgiving was only a regional New England holiday and wasn’t celebrated across the country like it is today. Hale began publishing recipes and articles about the feast.

Shortly after, in 1854, Hale heard about Bradford’s book, which had gone missing during the Siege of Boston in 1775 and resurfaced in the library of Fulham Palace in London that year.

Hale focused her attention on the brief sentence about the colonist’s hunt for wild turkeys that fall: “And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc,” Bradford wrote.

Despite the fact that Bradford never stated they ate turkey at the Thanksgiving feast, Hale started publishing articles about Thanksgiving dinners with roasted turkey and the two became synonymous.

Many people believe Thanksgiving became a reoccurring celebration for the pilgrims. Whether this is true or not is unclear. There are no other accounts of the pilgrims holding any more harvest celebrations after 1621. It is possible that the feasts happened, but if it did it wasn’t recorded.

Why Is it Called Thanksgiving?

The feast celebrated by the pilgrims in 1621 was never actually called “Thanksgiving” by the colonists. It was simply a harvest celebration. A few years later, in July of 1623, the pilgrims did hold what they called a “Thanksgiving.” This was simply a religious day of prayer and fasting that had nothing to do with the fall harvest.

Over the years, the names of the two events became intertwined and by the late 1600s many individual colonies and settlements, began holding “Thanksgiving feasts” during the autumn months.

When Did Thanksgiving Become a National Holiday?

Continental Congress declared the first national Thanksgiving on December 18, 1777 and then in 1789, George Washington declared the last Thursday in November a national Thanksgiving as well. These were merely declarations and not official holidays. Future presidents did not continue the Thanksgiving declaration.

"First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" oil painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe, circa 1914
“First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” oil painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe, circa 1914

Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until Hale began writing letters to each sitting president starting in 1846. She wrote letters to five presidents: Zachary Taylor, Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln asking them to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday.

Abraham Lincoln was the only president to listen and supported legislation making it a national holiday in 1863. America was in the middle of its bloody Civil War at the time and Lincoln hoped the new holiday would unify the bitterly divided country. The holiday was finally a success and Thanksgiving has continued ever since.

“Primary Sources For The First Thanksgiving At Plymouth.” Pilgrim Hall Museum, www.pilgrimhall.org/pdf/TG_What_Happened_in_1621.pdf
Armstrong, Elizabeth. “The First Thanksgiving;.” The Christian Science Monitor, 27 Nov. 2007, www.csmonitor.com/2002/1127/p13s02-lign.html
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Winslow, Edward and William Bradford. Mourt’s Relations Or the Journal of the Plantation at Plymouth. John Bellamy, 1622.

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

17 thoughts on “History of the First Thanksgiving

  1. Saul

    What were the Native-Americans names? Don’t really believe now that I see only the pilgrims names are on history! I’m sure y’all have their name. Mention them!

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      The only two primary sources that exist of the first Thanksgiving didn’t mention the names of the 90 Native-Americans who attended except for their leader Massosoit

    2. Linda Taschereau

      They were not even considered to be worthy of names by the Ignorant & Mean Spirited Colonists ! Is it no so much easier to find excuses to ease a concionence ? This is part of Denying History to Oue Girst People’s !! Totally Shameful !

      1. guywhoknows

        more like the colonists didn’t know their names. only one native american spoke english, and the colonists probably didn’t care enough to ask all of their names. lol.

      2. LinnyMac

        So here’s a question for you: do you know the names of all your neighbors? It may be of Historical Significance; future generations may want to know who they are. Or are you Ignorant and Mean Spirited in your failure to document this? Who knows when we are living at a time that future generations will consider significant. I think it’s unfair to characterize anyone as Ignorant and Mean Spirited when they were just trying to survive.

      3. Margrit Eddy

        Truly ignorant comment. Some of the Wampanoag tribal names were surely foreign to the English. To this day the names of towns and areas in and around Cape Cod are hard to spell and pronounce. Take Sippewissett, Moonoonuscusset, Iyannough and so on. And this is after they have been «  englishized ».


    In our divided country it was nice to know that 2 different cultures celebrated together without blaming each other on the current situation. I wish we could get along like they did; too much of the negative today.

  3. Conservative Cassandra

    Get over it, liberals! Like someone pointed out…do you think language might have been a barrier with regard to recording the names of the indians, considering the colonists and then indians spoke 2 different languages??!!

  4. Jenny

    I’ve heard so often of two histories behind thanksgiving. One of feasting, the other of fasting. This really helped to clarify why these two stories have been told to me over time. There were two recorded events that were separate. One in 1621 with feasting, the other in 1623, July, with prayer and fasting. I very much appreciate this getting cleared up and get to teach both days to my children, whom we homeschool.

  5. DaTh

    I have read that after the harvest back home in England, the people always had a celebration to thank God for their abundance, or a day of fasting if the harvest was not a good one. With much prayer spread through out to thank God for whatever they were able to reap. So I believe the Pilgrims celebrating the harvest was a carry over from the tradition they brought with them, nothing new to them.

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