The Role of the Pilgrims in Thanksgiving History

Thanksgiving is a cherished holiday in America, a time when families come together to express gratitude for the blessings in their lives. While most people associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and their feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, it is important to acknowledge that there were other Thanksgiving celebrations that predate the Pilgrims’ arrival. Among these early celebrations was the Spanish Thanksgiving in Florida, which, although less well-known, also played a part in the history of Thanksgiving.

Preparation and Journey

The Pilgrims, also known as the English Separatists, sought religious freedom in the early 17th century. After facing persecution in England, they moved to the Dutch city of Leiden, where they enjoyed relative religious tolerance. However, concerns about the preservation of their English identity and the desire for a better economic future prompted the Pilgrims to set their sights on the New World.

In 1620, the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower, a small ship, and embarked on a treacherous journey across the Atlantic. The ship was filled with uncertainty, as they faced stormy weather, cramped conditions, and limited provisions. The Pilgrims endured unimaginable hardships during their voyage, with sickness and death claiming many lives.

Arrival and Early Struggles

After an arduous journey lasting 66 days, the Pilgrims finally reached their destination – present-day Cape Cod, Massachusetts. However, this was not the land they had initially intended to settle. Their original destination was the mouth of the Hudson River, but due to treacherous storms and perilous conditions, they were forced to abandon their plans.

As winter approached, the Pilgrims faced a harsh reality: survival in a new, unfamiliar land. They established a settlement, which they named Plymouth, and immediately faced numerous challenges. The harsh winter took a toll on their already weakened bodies, resulting in a devastating loss of life. Nevertheless, those who survived persevered, bolstered by their faith and determination to establish a thriving community.

Interactions with Native Americans

Meeting with Squanto

The Pilgrims’ interactions with the Native Americans played a crucial role in their survival and eventual success. One of the most significant encounters was with Squanto, a Patuxet Native American who had previously been captured and sold into slavery but managed to return to his homeland. Squanto became an invaluable ally to the Pilgrims, as he taught them essential survival skills, such as planting crops and fishing techniques.

The Wampanoag tribe, led by Chief Massasoit, also played a pivotal role in fostering peaceful relations with the Pilgrims. In March 1621, Massasoit and a group of warriors visited Plymouth, initiating a treaty that lasted for more than 50 years. This alliance not only ensured the Pilgrims’ protection but also facilitated cultural exchange and trade, enhancing the development of the Plymouth Colony.

The First Thanksgiving

The fall of 1621 marked a turning point for the Pilgrims, as they celebrated their first successful harvest. To express gratitude for the bountiful crops and the assistance they received from the Native Americans, the Pilgrims organized a feast. This event, commonly referred to as the First Thanksgiving, is the cornerstone of the Thanksgiving tradition celebrated in America today.

The exact details of the First Thanksgiving are not well-documented, but historical accounts suggest that it lasted for three days and included a wide array of dishes. The Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together, sharing food, engaging in friendly competitions, and building bonds of friendship and understanding. This celebration symbolized the spirit of unity and cooperation that would define the early years of the Plymouth Colony.

The Spanish Thanksgiving in Florida

While the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving in Plymouth is widely recognized as the origin of Thanksgiving, it is worth mentioning the Spanish Thanksgiving that took place in Florida. In 1565, Spanish explorers led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established a settlement in St. Augustine, Florida. Upon their arrival, they held a Mass of Thanksgiving to give thanks for their safe passage and successful establishment of the colony. This early Thanksgiving celebration, organized by the Spanish colonizers, predates the Pilgrims’ arrival by over fifty years.

Legacy and Traditions

The Pilgrims interpreted their experiences in Plymouth as a testament to their faith and God’s providence. They viewed their survival and successful harvest as divine blessings, reinforcing their belief in the righteousness of their mission. Moreover, the Pilgrims saw their interactions with the Native Americans as part of God’s plan, enabling them to establish harmonious relations and thrive in their new home.

While the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving feast in 1621 was a significant event, it did not immediately establish an annual tradition. It was not until President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, during the midst of the Civil War, that Thanksgiving became a national holiday. Prior to this, Thanksgiving was effectively a New England regional holiday, as it was recognized by state governments there. However, Lincoln recognized the need for a truly national day of gratitude, declaring the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise.

Following Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving gradually became an integral part of American culture. Over the years, the holiday evolved, incorporating various customs and traditions. Families gathered to share a bountiful meal, expressing gratitude for their blessings. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which began in 1924, became a cherished tradition, delighting millions with its festive floats and performances. Football games, charitable acts, and volunteering also became synonymous with the holiday, emphasizing the importance of giving back and helping those in need.


The role of the Pilgrims in Thanksgiving history is undeniable. While the Spanish Thanksgiving in Florida and the contributions of Native Americans are significant, the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving marked the beginning of a cherished American tradition. The Pilgrims’ journey to the New World, their struggles, and their interactions with the Native Americans laid the foundation for a spirit of gratitude and unity that continues to resonate with Americans today. As we gather around the table each Thanksgiving, we honor the legacy of the Pilgrims and the enduring values of faith, gratitude, and community that they exemplified.


Bradford, W. (1856). Of Plymouth Plantation. J. Wiley.

Demos, J. (1970). A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. Oxford University Press.

Heath, D. (2005). A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth: Mourt’s Relation. Applewood Books.

Johnson, C. (2012). Pilgrim Hall Museum. Retrieved from

Loewen, J. W. (2018). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The New Press.

Martínez, M. (2007). The Spanish Thanksgiving in St. Augustine. University Press of Florida.

Philbrick, N. (2006). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Penguin Books.

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