We generally think of the Pilgrims as all of the English settlers that came to the Americas during the early 1600s. However, the Pilgrims were only the settlers of one of the colonies during that time. The people who we now call the pilgrims were the settlers of the Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts. This was not the only colony settled during that time, and it was not the first.
The first colony that survived was the Jamestown colony, established in 1609. The Pilgrims came almost a dozen years later, establishing the Plymouth colony in 1620. What was different about the Pilgrims was their religion. They were a group of people who disagreed with the Church of England about certain theological issues. The believed in separatism and were known at that time as separatists. They were very controversial, because the law in England was that all English citizens had to attend Church of England services. The Separatists continued to break the law and be punished for it because their beliefs told them that they could not attend those services.
The group of believers first went to Amsterdam seeking religious freedom, but they soon believed that they would be better off going to a brand new land and setting up their own community. In 1617, they began making plans to travel by boat to the New Land, which was America. After making the arrangements for land and chartering the boats, 120 Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower in September of 1620. One hundred and nineteen Pilgrims reach the New Land in November.
By the end of December, nearly half of the Pilgrims had died, mainly from disease. By the end of winter, there were only 47 of the original 120 Pilgrims still alive. Those 47 persevered, made peace with the native people and began to build there lives. One of the Natives, Squanto, knew English and befriended the Pilgrims. He taught them how to live off the land and soon they were fishing, hunting, and farming.
The Pilgrims began to thrive, and during that first summer, there were babies born, homes were built, and they practiced their religion as they had hoped when they left England. They also cultivated the land and planted crops, mostly corn. By the end of the summer, the corn and other crops were healthy and ready to be harvested and stored for the winter. It is this first harvest and the Pilgrim’s celebration of it that we think of as the first Thanksgiving.
Being religious people, they were of course, thankful to God above all, but they were also thankful for the Indians who had helped them succeed in the New World. They invited Squanto, his chief Massasoit, and about 90 of the Wampanoag Indians to the celebration. The 53 Pilgrims and the 90 natives celebrated in a three-day event. The three days was a time of feasting on the bountiful harvest, a time of celebration, and a time of prayer.
One of the interesting things about the first Thanksgiving is that it was not repeated the next year. The Pilgrims did not intend to create a holiday when they enjoyed those three days of feasting and games. It was a spontaneous celebration to which they invited their unlikely allies, Massasoit and the Wampanoag Indians. They did not set aside the day or days as holy. There were just 53 survivors who, because of their amazing harvest and the help they received from the natives, thought they would survive the coming winter. It was not until the 1800s that “Thanksgiving” was declared as a holiday, but that feast after the first harvest has always been associated with Thanksgiving Day.