From the Governor’s Desk, 

Thanksgiving 2021       1621-2021 From Arrival to Survival 


As we Celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the First Thanksgiving we take time to remember the story of our Ancestors, The Mayflower Pilgrims. “Their story is one which stands out in history showing what can be accomplished by faith, determination, and hard work.” (Raymond F. Hughes, GSMD, The Mayflower Story, 1973). 

Here is a brief version of the First Thanksgiving

400 hundred years ago this fall a group of settlers gave thanks for a bountiful harvest, their lives, and the freedoms they now enjoyed. This is what we now call the First Thanksgiving.

It was of course not the first-time humans had given thanks. The giving of thanks for life’s blessings dates back thousands of years and throughout all counties, societies, cultures, and races of people. 

In 1620, however, people we now call the Pilgrims, sailed to this country aboard a ship called the Mayflower. About 1/3 of this group were originally members of the English Separatist Church. In order to escape religious persecution, many of them had some years before, sailed from their homes in England to the Netherlands. There they had more religious tolerance, but they eventually became disenchanted with their situation in the Netherlands. Seeking a better life, the Separatists negotiated with a London stock company to finance a pilgrimage to America. The rest of those making the trip aboard the Mayflower were non-Separatists, seeking adventure and economic independence. They were hired, in part, to protect the company’s interests. (My ancestors fell into the second group. The Billingtons were merchants and Eaton was a shipbuilder- hired to help in the building of homes and the fort.) 

After months of delays and 66 harrowing days at sea, the Pilgrims landed at a spot that would later be called Cape Cod, MA, in December 1620. 

Their first winter was devastating. Nearly half of the original group of 102 who had sailed on the Mayflower, had lost their lives. 

With the invaluable help of the Native Americans and a year of trial and error of learning how to live in the New England environment, the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. 

The Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast. It is believed that the Pilgrims would not have survived the first year without the help of their new friends. They therefore invited three Native Americans guests, who had provided the most aid and comfort. Over 90 guests arrived for the feast. The feast lasted three days.

Governor William Bradford wrote in his journal that he sent “four men fowling” after wild ducks and geese. We are not sure if wild turkey was part of their feast; however, we do know they had venison. The Pilgrims guests brought five deer as their contribution to the feast. 

It is unlikely that the first Thanksgiving included pumpkin pie. The supply of flour and sugar had long been diminished, so there was no wheat bread or pastries. However, Bradford did write about boiled pumpkin, and a type of fried corn bread. There was also no milk, or butter. The Pilgrims had no cattle for dairy products, and the newly-discovered potato was still considered by many Europeans to be poisonous.  That sadly means there was definitely no Lefsa! They did have other foods such as fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, eel, and plums. They drank wine made from native grapes.

Along with the sharing of food and drinks, the Pilgrims and their guests enjoyed a time of activities of skill and strength, such as running and jumping, and other games.  There were demonstrations with musket firing and bows and arrows. Some of the games and foot races the Pilgrims had learned in England and some were of Native American origin. Both groups were, however, amazed that many of the activities were not unlike their own. 

A true friendship was formed during that time of gathering. 

Of the 18 adult women aged 21 and older who sailed on the Mayflower only four survived the first winter. Only three girls aged 16-19 survived, only three girls aged 14-15 survived, and only four girls aged 2-7 had survived. 

They must have been extremely industrious and efficient. Can you imagine how hard the 10 or so girls and women worked during the three days of celebration to prepare, cook, serve, and clean up after well over 150 hungry Pilgrims and guests. Especially when they had only expected about 50 mouths to feed. Sufficient tribute has never been paid to them for making these festivities a success under the most trying of conditions. For that matter, even the success of the Colony rested largely in their most capable and devoted hands. 

As you celebrate this year remember that Thanksgiving is not just about a Holiday. It is about something a few dozen survivors did after a year of suffering, death, struggle, and courage. It is about all of the brave people whose values and beliefs grew into the American culture.  (Glenn Alan Cheney, Thanksgiving, 2007.)

Work Cited:

The Mayflower Story, GSMD, Plymouth MA. November 1973



Many wishes for a very Happy Thanksgiving,

Sandy Roe 

Governor North Dakota Mayflower Society