A look back at the first Thanksgiving as Plymouth celebrates 400th year


PLYMOUTH, Mass. (WPRI) — Just one step onto the grounds of Plimoth Patuxet Museums and you’re back to the year 1621.

The living museum located in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving this year. It’s there where you can experience the hardships pilgrims faced their first year there, and why half the settlers didn’t survive.

“Prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620, there had been a major epidemic that swept through this area,” Malka Benjamin, Plimoth Patuxet Museums, said.

Now 400 years later, a pandemic, and the current gratitude for what we do have may not be far off from what was felt on the first Thanksgiving.

“Every culture. Every religion around the world has ways of expressing gratitude,” Benjamin explained.

If you’ve heard of Massasoit, or Great Chief, you may not know he was the leader of the Pokanoket people, which was based out of what is now Warren and Bristol, Rhode Island.

The illness the natives had just experienced weakened their numbers. They then ventured miles to Plymouth, where the Wampanoags and other tribed lived, to meet the pilgrims.

“We say ‘oh he was just being friendly and helpful, we take away all of his agency,'” Benjamin said. “He was a shrewd leader. He’s doing what he thinks is best for his people he sees advantage in allying with the pilgrims.”

Benjamin shared a pictograph showing the ratio of native people to pilgrims at that feast.

“Massasoit and his 90 Pokanoket men are just some of the native people who are present,” she said.

Wampanoag historian and artisan Melissa Costa said the biggest misconception guests have is that Thanksgiving was a planned feast among the people.

“It was more of a stumble-upon,” Costa explained.

The native people who lived on the land were there thousands of years prior to the English arriving and having that first Thanksgiving in 1621.

An actual homesite of a Wampanoag family is at the Plimoth Patuxet Museums and those who attend can learn about the traditional 17th-century boat building, cooking, and crafting.

Down the path to the Pilgrim Village, you feel like you’re in the fall of 1621.

Pilgrims’ first-hand accounts show a detailed look at everything from hunting, to farming, and even each resident’s personality. However, they did not describe in detail the food at the first Thanksgiving.

“I think it’s safe to say that there were certainly ducks, geese, turkeys, all these different types of birds on the table,” Benjamin said.

It’s also known the natives presented the pilgrims with deer — venison was a meal for royalty back in England.

For the rest of the spread, it’s a guess based on what was harvested during that time period: corn, squash, cranberries, quahogs, and mussels.

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