Originally, the Pilgrims celebrated thanksgiving as days of prayer. But in 1621, in celebration of surviving the winter, they first celebrated thanksgiving as a time of feasting. The national holiday stems from that feast held in the autumn of that year by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. The feast lasted almost a week and sometimes the Pilgrims ate with the Wampanoag, sometimes separately. Since the Wampanoag lived two days walk from the colony and the Pilgrims had no extra lodging for them, they built houses to live in while they visited. During the visit, the Wamponoag and Pilgrims played games, sang, danced and competed in sports. Possible games were the pin game (tossing a ring onto a small stick), Blind Man’s Bluff, and shooting contests. In addition to Governor William Bradford, Captain Miles Standish, and William Brewster, the leader of the Wamponoag, Massosoit, and Squanto, who had helped teach the colonists how to plant crops were in attendance. It was the high point in relations between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag.
Who were the Wampanoag? Nancy Eldredge, Nauset Wampanoag and Penobscot, explains, “Our name, Wampanoag, means People of the First Light. In the 1600s, we had as many as 40,000 people in the 67 villages that made up the Wampanoag Nation. These villages covered the territory along the east coast as far as Wessagusset (today called Weymouth), all of what is now Cape Cod and the islands of Natocket and Noepe (now called Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard), and southeast as far as Pokanocket (now Bristol and Warren, Rhode Island). We have been living on this part of Turtle Island [“the continent of America”] for over fifteen thousand years.”
The Pilgrims were not the Wampanoag’s first encounter with Europeans. In 1524, the expedition of Govanni Da Verrazzano, commissioned by King Francis I of France, came to set up trade between the Wampanoag and France. Merchant vessels and fishing boats also traveled along the coast of present-day New England in the 16th century. Sometimes these merchant vessels captured Native Americans and sold them as slaves. A Wamponoag named Tisquantum, more popularly known as Squanto, was captured and then purchased by Spanish Monks. They attempted to convert him, taught him their language, and eventually set him free.
Despite this, Tisquantum boarded another English ship to accompany an expedition to Newfoundland as an interpreter. When he returned to his homeland in 1619, he discovered that his entire Patuxet villages, including his own family, had fallen victim to an epidemic. This is the same person who, in 1620, along with other Wampanoag taught the non-native newly arrived Pilgrims how to cultivate varieties of corn, squash and beans (the Three Sisters); catch fish, and collect seafood. To them he was known as Squanto.
Squanto lived with the colonists and acted as a middleman between the Pilgrims and the principal Wampanoag chief, Massasoit. It appears to me that the Wampanoag were so welcoming because they hoped the Pilgrims would be allies against their enemies. The ten years before the arrival of the Pilgrims was the worst time in their history, up to that point. They were attacked from the north by Mi’kmaq warriors who took over the coast after their victory over the Penobscot in the Tarrantine war (1607–1615) and from the west by the Pequot who occupied portions of eastern Connecticut. All of this was followed in 1616-1619, by the devastating epidemic or series of epidemics thought to be from leptospirosis or 7-day fever. The groups most devastated by the illness were those who had traded heavily with the French or came into contact with those who did. Alfred Crosby, a medical historian, has suggested that among those impacted, the decline in population was as high as ninety percent.
The depletion of the tribe caused by the epidemic was devastating to the Wampanoag. Unable to defend themselves caused them to have to give up much of their land to rival tribes who had avoided contact with the Europeans. So, when the Pilgrims established a colony at Plymouth, the Wampanoag Massasoit (Chief or Sachem), along with Squanto, visited them in March 1621 and signed an alliance that gave the colony about 12,000 acres of land. It is doubtful that the Massasoit understood the concept of land possession. Native Americans believed that land was for everyone, not a possession, before the Europeans introduced the idea. But, they were happy to have an ally.
Map of the Wampanoag villages around Plymouth colony
Fortunately, before the Narragansett could attack the new alliance, they were attacked by the Pequot leaving the Wampanoag and Pilgrims to live in peace for awhile. Squanto and others lived alongside the Pilgrims and taught them how to plant crops, fish, and hunt. When the Massasoit became gravely ill, he benefited from the alliance when the Pilgrims were able to nurse him back to health. Then in 1623, when the Narragansett ended their wars with the Pequot and Mohawk, the Pilgrims helped the Wampanoag defend themselves and drive them back.
The friendship and alliance formed between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag lasted from 1621 through 1661 when Massasoit died. After the great Sachem’s death, things turned very ugly.