The image depicted here is probably the sort of thing that many people picture when they think of the first Thanksgiving. I, for one, remember images like this pinned to bulletin boards in my elementary school classrooms and it’s stuck with me. Although not completely accurate, it’s a fair enough representation of what took place. But did you ever wonder where, specifically, this scene played out? We all know it was Plymouth, but where, exactly?
Before we get to where, a little bit about the image itself and what actually happened that fall in 1621. The painting was done around 1912 by artist Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Ferris was born in Philadelphia in 1863. He produced this painting as part of a series of 78 depictions of important moments in American history which he called “The Pagent of a Nation,” the largest such compilation of artwork.
There are a few inaccuracies. The Native Americans, most notably, are depicted in the garb of the Plains tribes. This was a common error in artwork of the time…people were more familiar with the Plains tribes than they were with the eastern woodland Native Americans of centuries earlier. The Pokanokets who participated in the first Thanksgiving dressed rather differently and did not wear the stereotypical feathered headdresses. And the house in the background isn’t quite right, but it’s certainly better than the log cabins shown in most artwork of that era. The Pilgrims did not build log cabins.
That said, there are some clever details in the painting that show that Ferris did his research. The fellow standing at far right is Edward Winslow. There exists a painting of Edward Winslow, the only known portrait of one of the Pilgrims, in the collection of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth. Ferris copied Winslow’s face and put it in his Thanksgiving depiction. The Winslow portrait was done 30 years after the first Thanksgiving, so Winslow ought to appear rather younger, but still, it’s a nice touch. The presence of the spaniel shows that Ferris read William Bradford’s journal. Bradford mentions that a spaniel and mastiff were brought on the Mayflower. And the clothing of the English settlers is generally accurate…much better than the black suits, white napkins and buckled hats that somehow worked their way into most depictions of Pilgrims.
Edward Winslow wrote letters to associates back in England, some of which were compiled and published in 1622 as Mourt’s Relation (so called because the publisher in London was a George Morton, sometimes known as George Mourt). It was, essentially, a publicity piece meant to attract more colonists to Plymouth. Winslow’s description of the first Thanksgiving in 1621 is the best primary source available on the subject (Bradford wrote about it as well, and his paragraph is also an invaluable source, but written many years after the fact). As Winslow describes it:
Our 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 fruit 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, among other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among 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 upon 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.
What you had in 1621 was a celebration on the part of the English settlers that they had survived their first year and managed, with the help of the Pokanokets, to raise a successful harvest. It probably took place in September 1621, although the exact month is not mentioned. There were approximately 50 settlers in Plymouth at the time and about 90 Pokanokets attended. So this was no small celebration. And it took place over the course of three days with hunting, feasting, military drills and games.
So, when you consider where this all took place, given the size of the celebration, I suppose it happened all throughout the village of Plymouth. There was no one table at which they all gathered. The first street built by the English settlers, along which they constructed their primitive houses, is now known as Leyden Street in downtown Plymouth. At the head of Leyden Street is Town Square. This is the street recreated at the living history museum, Plimoth Plantation, as it appeared in the 1620s.
There was a town common of sorts in 1621. It was a space left open between John Alden’s house and William Bradford’s house where the militia could drill. The location is now occupied by the Bradford Building at the corner of Town Square and Main Street. This open space would have been a convenient place for an outdoor feast and games.
I suppose I have always thought of that spot as the epicenter of Thanksgiving although there is probably no single spot that you can point to. I have looked at that block often, trying to imagine the festivities happening there in 1621.
Every Thanksgiving, since my daughters were tiny, I have tried to explain to them what a remarkable thing it is to live in Plymouth…a place remembered by virtually the entire country once a year. This was a difficult concept for them to grasp early on, but they certainly get the significance now.
This year, we’ll take our stroll down Leyden Street, perhaps not on Thanksgiving but close to it, and we’ll together try to picture the celebration that took place there nearly 400 years ago.