In this excerpt from his biography William Bradford: Plymouth’s Faithful Pilgrim, children’s author Gary D. Schmidt gives an account of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving.
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Fall came in, with the first chilling breezes from off the water. The leaves on the oaks started to brown, while the maples rushed to rioting colors. The Pilgrims remembered their first winter and its toll, but, taking stock, they found that God’s blessing had brought them a kind of plenty they had never had before.
They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exersised in fishing, aboute codd, and bass, and other fish, of which they tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All the sommer ther was no wante. And now began to come in store of foule, as winter aproached, of which this place did abound. . . . And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, etc. Besids they had aboute a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corne to that proportion.
It must have given Bradford a pleasure unlike any other to see the stores brought in. If he had lost his wife, he had put all of his energies into husbanding the resources of Plymouth Colony. With the fall came the harvest, and it seemed full. Though the six acres of English barley and peas were only “indifferent good,” the twenty acres of corn sprouted and tasseled. Bradford was pleased; it seemed they would enter the winter well provisioned, and certainly with better shelter than they had had the previous winter. Remembering the habit of the Dutch, who celebrated their freedom from the Spanish with a holiday every October, Bradford decreed a day to be set aside so that all the Pilgrims might “after a more special manner, rejoyce together.”
Fowl were gathered in, including “wild Turkies.” Shellfish, eels, and lobsters were harvested from the tidal pools. There was corn bread to make, goose and duck to cook, leeks and watercress to be gathered, dried berries to be prepared. If this had been just for the fifty Pilgrims, the task might not have been so great. But to cement ties of friendship, Bradford sent Squanto to invite Massasoit, and when the sachem arrived on a beautiful October day, he brought with him ninety of his men, tripling the size of the company. Though the Pilgrims had prepared enough meat to feed the colony for an entire week, they had never thought to provide food for so many. Perhaps Massasoit understood; he sent five of his men back into the woods, and soon they returned with five deer.
Thus began three days of feasting. One hundred forty-two sat down to trestle tables, including the ten women who, with children and a handful of servants, prepared all the food. It was a grueling three days for them. Between meals the men played games of skill, and Massasoit was surprised to see that the Pilgrims’ games were not so different from those his own people played. Bradford’s invitation had been astute; it did cement a friendship.
But the harvest feast was more than that for the Pilgrims. It was a celebration of God’s blessing. They had survived; they were even beginning to flourish. They sensed that God was with them. Edward Winslow, remembering that day two months later, wrote in a letter back to England that “although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
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May your feasting today be — like that of the Pilgrims long ago — filled with friendly fellowship and sincere thanks for the goodness of God!