Story – At the First Thanksgiving

The summer days were full for the busy Pilgrims. In the fields there were only twenty men and a few boys to do all the work. There was corn to hoe, and there were gardens to weed and care for. When time could be spared from this work, there were barns to be built, and the fort to finish.

The brave men worked from morning till night preparing for the next long winter. The sun and the rain helped them. The crops grew wonderfully, and soon the hillsides were green with growing corn, and wheat, and vegetables.

When the warm days of early summer came, there were sweet wild strawberries on the sunny hills. A little later, groups of boys and girls filled their baskets with wild raspberries and juicy blackberries from the bushes on the edge of the forest. Sugar was too scarce to be used for jellies and preserves, but trays of the wild fruits were placed in the sun to dry for winter use.

The fresh green of the wheat fields began to turn a golden brown. The harvest was ripening. Before long the air rang with the steady beat of the flail, as the Pilgrims threshed their first crop of golden grain.

Soon the corn was ready to be cut and stacked in shocks. Then came the early frosts, and the Pilgrims hurried to gather the sweet wild grapes from vines which grew over bushes and low trees near the brook. The frost had opened the prickly burs and hard brown coats of the nuts, and every day Squanto went with a merry group of boys to gather chestnuts, hickory nuts, beechnuts, and walnuts.

At last the harvest was all gathered in. The Pilgrims rejoiced as they saw the bountiful supply of food for the winter. Some of the golden ears of corn they hung above the fireplace to dry for seed. The rest they shelled and buried in the ground, as Squanto showed them how to do.

As the evenings grew longer and cooler, the Pilgrims often went in to spend an hour or two at Elder Brewster’s. The men piled great logs upon the fire. Then the girls and boys drew the chairs and benches nearer the huge fireplace, and all would sit in the twilight and talk.

Sometimes they spoke of old times in England, or Holland, but usually it was of their work and the life in their new home. On this November evening everyone talked of the harvest which had just been stored away.

“Friends,” said Governor Bradford, “God has blessed our summer’s work, and has sent us a bountiful harvest. He brought us safe to this new home and protected us through the terrible winter. It is fit we have a time for giving thanks to God for His mercies to us. What say you? Shall we not have a week of feasting and of thanksgiving?”

“A week of thanksgiving!” said the Pilgrims. “Yes, let us rest from our work and spend the time in gladness and thanksgiving. God has been very good to us.”

So it was decided that the next week should be set aside for the harvest feast of thanksgiving, and that their Indian friends should be asked to join them.

Early the next morning Squanto was sent to invite Massasoit with his brother and friends to come the following Thursday.

When he returned, a party of men went into the woods for two days of hunting. They would need many deer and wild ducks to feed so large a company. When the men came back from their hunt they brought a bountiful supply of deer, rabbits, wild ducks, and turkeys.

The next few days were busy ones in Plymouth kitchens. There were the great brick ovens to heat, and bread to bake and game to dress.

“Priscilla shall be chief cook,” said Mistress Brewster. “No one can make such delicious dishes as she.”

As soon as it was light on Wednesday morning, a roaring fire was built in the huge fireplace in Elder Brewster’s kitchen. A great pile of red-hot coals was placed in the brick oven in the chimney.

Then Mary Chilton and Priscilla tied their aprons around them, tucked up their sleeves, and put white caps over their hair. Their hands fairly flew as they measured and sifted the flour, or rolled and cut cookies and tarts.

Over at another table Remember Allerton and Constance Hopkins washed and chopped dried fruits for pies and puddings. Out on the sunny doorstone Love Brewster and Francis Billington sat cracking nuts and picking out the plump kernels for the cakes Priscilla was making. What a merry place the big kitchen was!

In the afternoon all of the girls and boys went to the beach. While they were gone, some of the men, brought boards, hammers, and saws and built two long tables out-of-doors near the common-house. Here the men would eat, and a table would be spread in the elder’s house for the women and children.

It was Thanksgiving morning, and the Pilgrims were up early to prepare for the guests they had invited to the feast of thanksgiving. The air was mild and pleasant, and a soft purple haze lay upon field and wood.

“We could not have had a more beautiful day for our feast,” thought Miles Standish, as he climbed the hill to fire the sunrise gun.

Just then wild yells and shouts told the astonished Pilgrims that their guests had arrived. Down the hill from the forest came Massasoit, his brother, and nearly a hundred of his friends, dressed in their finest skins, and in holiday paint and feathers.

The captain and a number of other men went out to welcome the Indians, and the women hurried to prepare breakfast for them.

Squanto and John Alden built a big fire near the brook, and soon a broth was simmering in the great kettle.

The roll of the drum called all to prayers, for the Pilgrim’s never began a day without asking God’s blessing upon it. “The white men talk to the Great Spirit,” Squanto explained to Chief Massasoit. “They thank Him for His good gifts.” The Indians seemed to understand, and listened quietly to the prayers.

They all sat down at the long tables. The women were soon busy passing great bowls of broth to each hungry guest. There were piles of brown bread and sweet cakes; there were dishes of turnips and boiled meat, and later, bowls of pudding made from Indian corn.

While they were eating, one of the Indians brought a great basket filled with popped corn and poured it out upon the table. The Pilgrims had never seen popcorn before. They filled a large bowl with this new dainty and set it on the children’s table.

When breakfast was over, there was another service of thanksgiving, led by Elder Brewster. Then Governor Bradford took his friends to the grassy common where they would have games.

A number of little stakes were driven into the ground, and here several groups of Indians and Pilgrims played quoits, the Indians often throwing the greater number of rings over the stakes.

Then the Indians entertained their friends with some wonderful feats of running and jumping. After this Governor Bradford invited the Indians to sit down on the grass and watch the soldiers drill on the common.

The Indians sat down, not knowing what to expect, for they had never before seen soldiers drill. Suddenly they heard the sound of trumpets, and the roll of drums. Down the hill marched the little army of only nineteen men, the flag of old England waving above their heads.

To right and to left they marched, in single file or by twos and threes, then at a word from the captain, fired their muskets into the air. The Indians were not expecting this, and some sprang to their feet in alarm. Many of the Indians looked frightened.

“The white men are our friends,” Massasoit told them. “They will not harm us.”

Soon the last day of the feast arrived. How busy the women were preparing this greatest dinner! Of course the men and boys helped too. They brought water from the brook, and wood for the fire.

You should have seen the great dishes of purple grapes, the nuts and the steaming puddings. The table seemed to groan under its load of good things, The Indians had never seen such a feast. “Ugh!” said Massasoit, as he ate the puffy dumplings in Priscilla’s stew. “Ugh! The Great Spirit loves His white children.”

So the happy day ended, and the Indians returned to their wigwams. The Pilgrims never forgot their first Thanksgiving day. Each year when the harvests were gathered, they would set aside a day for thanking God for His good gifts, and for years their Indian friends joined in this feast.

Stories of the Pilgrims, Margaret B. Pumphrey, ©1991, 155–163.