First Thanksgiving: History, Facts & Foods

Instructor: Michael Knoedl

Michael teaches high school Social Studies and has a M.S. in Sports Management.

Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, millions of Americans celebrate a federal holiday to watch football and parades and stuff themselves at the dinner table. Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving, and what food was used to celebrate? Learn those answers here.


There have been many feasts considered 'Thanksgiving Feasts' in the history of what is, today, the United States. In 1541, the Spanish had a 'Thanksgiving' in the modern Texas Panhandle. There was a French 'Thanksgiving' near modern Jacksonville, Florida, in 1564; an English feast in Maine in 1607; and another English feast at Jamestown after the 'Starving Time.' Today we celebrate Thanksgiving after the Pilgrim (Puritan) and Pokanoket Indian celebration in 1621, which was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The Pokanoket Indians and Pilgrims coexisted around Plymouth.
pokan and plymouth

Why Did They Feast?

The reason for the celebration of the First Thanksgiving in 1621 is still debated. There are two basic stories, one peaceful and one more militant.

The peaceful story is simply that Squanto, a Patuxet Indian who had learned English during his time as a slave, came to the Pilgrims and taught them how to use fish to grow corn and how to harvest sap from a maple tree. Squanto also served as the interpreter for the local Pokanoket tribe to the settlers.

Squanto learned English as a slave.

He helped the Pokanoket chief, Massasoit, to understand the Pilgrims' food shortage and the chief donated food to the Pilgrims. After a year in Plymouth, the Pilgrims were able to gather their first harvest of crops. To celebrate, they hosted a feast of 'Thanksgiving' to God and they invited the Pokanokets to join them. The Pilgrims did not know exactly how many Pokanokets would join them and did not have enough food for everyone. Massasoit sent his men to gather more food. They brought back enough to have the celebration for three days.

The militant story is not terribly different than the peaceful story. Squanto still assisted the Pilgrims with harvesting their own crops and catching or killing their own food. Massasoit and the Pokanoket tribe was still friendly to the Pilgrims. However, this story involves the Pokanokets asking the Pilgrims to use their weapons to help them with a tribe that had been causing strife between the two tribes. The Pilgrims and Pokanokets, on August 14, 1621, attacked the tribe and killed all members. Thanksgiving was celebrated for the harvest and the alliance between the Pokanokets and the Pilgrims.

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