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America’s Thanksgiving began almost 400 years ago

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This Thanksgiving, Thursday, Nov. 26, is the 399th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving gathering, held in November 1621 in Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, when the newly arrived Pilgrims sat with the Wampanoag tribe for a three-day feast that included wild deer, fowl and the Pilgrims’ first corn crop.

In the 17th century, the Wampanoag (waam·puh·now·ag) were a confederation of tribes of Native Americans living in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Their groups included the Chappaquiddick, the Nantucket, the Mashpee, the Pokanoket and the Herring Pond. Today, the Wampanoag include five officially recognized tribes. The name means “People of the Dawn.”

The Pilgrims were the English settlers who came to America in 1620 aboard the Mayflower and settled Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. The term pilgrim was probably used for the Mayflower passengers for the first time in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation” in July 1620, when he quoted an Old Testament passage about “strangers and pilgrims.” The word comes from the Latin peregrinus, “one who has come from afar.”

The Pilgrims were Brownists, who were separatists from the Church of England. They went into exile because of their beliefs in Holland in 1607-8 before sailing for America Sept. 16, 1620, arriving Nov. 9. A child, Oceanus Hopkins, was born aboard ship during the journey, but died in childhood. Another boy, Peregrine White, was born on the ship as it lay at anchor after arriving in America. (The Mayflower returned to England May 9, 1621. It was likely sold for scrap about three years later.)

Those in attendance at that very first Thanksgiving included Bradford, a weaver and judge, who served nearly 20 years as governor of Plymouth Colony in five nonconsecutive terms beginning in May 1621. The colony’s first governor, John Carver, died in April 1621 after less than a year in office. The Wampanoag were led by their sachem (leader), Massasoit.

Alas, there was no pumpkin pie – with or without gluten-free crust – at that first Thanksgiving, and the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag had no television to gather around after the great meal to watch football. And there wouldn’t be a presidential campaign to reflect on for another 170 years or so. Maybe they just talked about the weather. 

Thanksgiving