Three Forgotten Lessons from the First U.S. Thanksgiving

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth"...

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches in the United States, the story of the first celebration at Plymouth colony will be retold at many tables. Stories will recount how the settlers introduced the British Harvest Festival to the local Pokanoket Indians. In preparation for the feast, the settlers shot fowl and caught fish. Chief Massasoit and a few hundred Pokanokets arrived with five freshly killed deer. Because of the barley crop, the settlers had the key ingredient to brew beer, setting the stage for a celebration with food, dance and games that lasted a few days.

The story of the first U.S. Thanksgiving is inextricably linked with the spirit of gratitude.  The meaning grafted onto its retelling is that the settlers were so grateful to the Pokanokets for their early survival that they invited them over for dinner as a gesture of gratitude (and asked that they bring the deer.) Accordingly, we follow suit to take a day to celebrate with those to whom we are grateful as a legacy of this first celebration.

Trust me, I am all for the practice of gratitude. It’s one practice that’s hard for me to overdo. But the sole emphasis on gratitude as the meaning of the first U.S. Thanksgiving (a term not adopted until nearly three hundred years after the original celebration) causes us to overlook some of the key lessons from that first harvest celebration on U.S. soil.  Clearly, the settlers had reason to be grateful. The fact that any survived the first harsh winter, the plague and hostile conditions is remarkable. But the reasons why handfuls of settlers at Plymouth were even around to celebrate in early autumn has much to do with the decisions they made; decisions that are relevant for today.

Decision One: Don’t Go It Alone

The Plymouth settlers could have followed the path of the French sailors who preceded them to southern New England. The sailors thought they could settle alone without the local tribes. They couldn’t; they died. The wisdom of William Bradford to engage in collaboration vs. arrogant isolation is arguably the key decision that contributed to his settlement’s survival. He made a treaty with the Pokanokets, traded for corn with the Nausets and showed his loyalty to Massasoit. In return, the local tribes tolerated, even helped, the Pilgrims when killing them was a viable option.

Decision Two: Negotiate On The 20% Of Issues Than Make Up 80% Of Differences

The settlers and local tribes had plenty of problems; the biggest being each believed the other would be the end of them. Put that into perspective of a current negotiable issue. Reasons for mistrust abounded. Bradford and Massasoit negotiated a treaty, mediated by Squanto, which was remarkably brief. Its six points began with “We won’t injure or hurt each other” (you must agree this was the big one) and went on to expectations about how each side would enforce the first point. The only point that did not deal with safety was a point about returning borrowed tools.  The treaty did not resolve all the grievances between the Indians and the settlers, but because of it, each side understood they would be safe.

Decision Three: Find the Good in Your Enemy

The first generation of settlers and Native Americans had plenty of reasons not to like each other.  The Indians believed the English would unleash the plague. The settlers thought the Indians to be barbarians. One of the outcomes of the first Thanksgiving is that both sides got to experience the entire community of the other. They found that they were joined together in mutual survival against threats of war, disease and nature. The goodwill between the first generation of settlers allowed the original English settlement to grow and the Pokanokets to nurture an increasingly important ally.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are many things about the original Thanksgiving I will not recreate when I host this Thursday. If you are one of my guests, please don’t bring “freshly killed deer.” There will be plenty of turkey. We will have the convenience of cold beer already brewed. And, as much as I love you all, I’m not counting on you staying for three days. On Thursday, we will acknowledge all we have that grace our lives.

I will reintroduce some of the decisions and lessons that allowed the first U.S. Thanksgiving to even be possible. I will reflect on where I can reach out instead of go it alone. I’ll think about how to address the 20% of my needs that will make 80% of my life better, and not hold on to the little stuff. I’ll try to remember that I can find good in people that I don’t really like if I look hard enough. Because I believe those last three lessons from the first U.S. Thanksgiving fuel the abundance for which I am so grateful.

For those of you who celebrate Thursday, Happy Thanksgiving!


Philbrick, Nathaniel (2006). Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War.  New York: Viking Books.

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