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Meet the Native American tribe that shared the first Thanksgiving

Conservative Review

The details surrounding the first Thanksgiving meal remain a contested topic among historians. What we do know is that the Pilgrim colonists gathered in Plymouth, Mass., in November 1621 with the Wampanoag tribe to celebrate the fall harvest. The co-celebrated harvest was considered a remarkable feat of humanity and decency and is celebrated today as a symbol of respect, unity, and family.

There are only two primary sources regarding the harvest celebration between a supposed 53 Pilgrims and about 90 natives, according to the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

The first, from Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow, said of the feast:

[O]ur harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others.

And 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, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

The second primary source, William Bradford, added:

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit 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 exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion.

All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck of meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

So what has become of the Wampanoag tribe? And what happened to King Massasoit?

Wampanoag means “easterners,” in obvious reference to their geographic location. Today, members of the tribe identify by the same name, while some prefer to be identified as descendants of King Massasoit. The English colonists made first contact with the tribe in the early 17th century. During that time, the Wampanoag held territory in modern-day Rhode Island and southeast Massachusetts.

Massasoit, meanwhile, is credited with helping the Pilgrims stave off almost certain starvation. He was also known as a great diplomat, helping his tribe stay afloat during periods of plague and warfare.

After a Pilgrim doctor helped him recover from a serious illness, he once reportedly said that “the English are my friends and love me ... whilst I live I will never forget this kindness they have showed me.” For some 50 years, he kept his tribe out of warfare and/or entangling alliances that could potentially result in conflict.

Tragically, much of the Wampanoag tribe was wiped out by an epidemic likely brought ashore by the Pilgrims. Fifty years later, the group again suffered tremendous losses during King Philip’s War, a one-year conflict between a coalition of Native American tribes and the English colonists and their Native American allies. Following their defeat, many Wampanoags were sold into slavery.

The Wampanoag once spoke a language of their own, called Wopanaak, but the last remaining speaker of the indigenous language passed away over a century ago. However, thanks to the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, new efforts have been made to teach the native language.

According to the American Indian Heritage Foundation, “Today, about 3,000 Wampanoag Indians still live in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There is a reservation for the Wampanoag Indians on Martha’s Vineyard that was set up by the United States government.”

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