When I was in elementary school, I was taught that the first Thanksgiving was a festive feast in celebration of the friendship between the Pilgrims and the Native American Wampanoag tribe. Most Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving—about 9 in 10, according to a 2021 poll—eat turkey with their holiday meal, perhaps alongside traditional side dishes like mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing. However, the history and origins of this beloved holiday go beyond the familiar imagery of a bountiful feast.
Thanksgiving, as we know it today, has evolved over centuries. It is believed that the first Thanksgiving took place in 1621 at Plymouth Colony, but historians and archaeologists at the Florida Museum of Natural History suggest that it wasn't the first gathering of its kind. The Wampanoag people had a long-standing tradition of celebrating the harvest season, and the Pilgrims likely adopted and adapted this custom.
The Pilgrims, who were English Separatists seeking religious freedom, arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. After a difficult first winter, they formed alliances with the Wampanoag tribe, who taught them essential survival skills and helped them cultivate the land. In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims held a feast to express gratitude for a successful harvest and to strengthen their newfound friendship with the Wampanoag people.