What follows is my abridgement of the Thanksgiving story, written with balance and restraint for children by teacher and author Charles M. Larsen, who is descended from several American Indian tribes. If you wish, you can read the full account along with other commentary. (Please note that some of the text at this link may be upsetting to young children.)
Pilgrims and Indians: First Contact
When the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1620, they landed on the rocky shores of a territory that was inhabited by the Wampanoag (Wam-pa-NO-ag) Indians. 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 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. The Wampanoags also treated each other with respect. Any visitor was provided with a share of whatever food the family had, even if the supply was low. As we shall see, this same courtesy was extended to the Pilgrims when they met.
The Indian named Squanto was originally from the village of Patuxet (Pa-TUK-et) and a member of the Wampanoag nation. Patuxet once stood on the exact site where the Pilgrims built Plymouth. In 1605, 15 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 to Patuxet in 1620. When they arrived, the village was deserted. 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 Wampanoags.
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 English.
Squanto Helps the Pilgrims Survive
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. 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. He brought 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 for 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 First Thanksgiving
Captain Miles Standish, the leader of the Pilgrims, invited Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit (the leader of the Wampanoags), 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 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 gave orders to his men 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 Clan Chief Massasoit sat at the other end.
For three days the Wampanoags 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 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.
The Sad Aftermath
It would be very good to say that this friendship lasted a long time; but, unfortunately, that was not to be. More English people came to America, and they were not in need of help from the Indians as were the original Pilgrims. Many of the newcomers forgot the help the Indians had given them. Mistrust started to grow and the friendship weakened. The Pilgrims started telling their Indian neighbors that their Indian religion and Indian customs were wrong. The Pilgrims displayed intolerance toward the Indian religion. The relationship deteriorated and within a few years the children of the people who ate together at the first Thanksgiving were killing one another in what came to be called King Phillip’s War.
It is sad to think that this happened, but it is important to understand all of the story and not just the happy part. Today, the town of Plymouth Rock has a Thanksgiving ceremony each year in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving. There are still Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts. In 1970, the town asked one of them to speak at the ceremony to mark the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s arrival. Here is part of what was said:
“Today is a time of celebrating for you — a time of looking back to the first days of white people in America. But it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People. When the Pilgrims arrived, we, the Wampanoags, welcomed them with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end. That before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a tribe. That we and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them. Let us always remember, the Indian is and was just as human as the white people.
Although our way of life is almost gone, we, the Wampanoags, still walk the lands of Massachusetts. What has happened cannot be changed. But today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature once again are important.”