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.”