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Plimoth Plantation Recreates Era of First Thanksgiving

Every American school child knows the Thanksgiving story - how, after a hard year, the Puritan settlers and their Native American friends sat down for a feast to give thanks. The story is acted out at the living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but not necessarily as it's been told for generations. Erika Celeste reports.

Visiting Plimoth Plantation is like stepping into the 17th century. A replica of the Mayflower, which carried the colonists from England, rocks gently in the harbor.

The more than two-month Atlantic crossing had been a difficult journey for the 100 men, women and children hoping to start a new life in the new world.

Rita Hutchinson, who works on the historic recreation of that ship, says little is known about the crossing, except what the first governor of the colony wrote in his journal many years later.

"We know that it was a stormy crossing. We know a baby was born. We know one of the passengers fell overboard. We know that there was some pretty serious damage to the ship during one of the storms," Hutchinson says.

A welcome and helping hand from native people

When the colonists landed, they were greeted by the native people, the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag dressed in animal skins, decorated with fur and feathers. They wore teeth, bones and gourds as jewelry and on their clothing, and painted their skin with various berries and minerals. They were a matriarchal society. Extended families shared dwellings made of bent saplings and rushes.

At Plimoth Plantation, actors dressed in period costumes recreate the daily life of the early 17th century. Those portraying the Wampanoag speak in modern English so that visitors can better understand their story.

As a young woman tends a fire outside one of the homes, she explains, "I'm cooking a soup of crab meat and smoked clams with wild garlic and corn. Soups are very common. We don't have set meals in our society. People ate when they were hungry, so soups are good for that."

She stirs the liquid in the clay pot and adds, "A lot of fish and shellfish in the warm months, red meats in the cold weather, but more than half our diet is fruits and vegetables."

Each Wampanoag family had their own garden where they grew corn, beans and squash. They also gathered wild foods.

Elsewhere in the recreated village, a man in buckskins, with a small pouch made of skunk skin tied around his waist, is burning out the inside of a huge log. He explains that when he is finished, the log will be a canoe, fit to travel on the open ocean.

"Traditionally, you burn everything away that doesn't look like a canoe. That's our description," he says. "The sides, you want to be about an inch thick. We want the bottom to be 4 to 6 inches thick."

All the wood in the bottom, he says, acts like a natural keel, keeping the canoe upright.

The Wampanoag taught the colonists all these skills and more. Without their help, historians say it is doubtful the Pilgrims would have survived.

Colonists were investors in company that funded their settlement

Down the road from the Wampanoag Village is a reconstruction of the colonists' settlement. Here, the actors not only wear period costumes and work at the daily tasks of an established 1627 community. They also speak as if they were of the time.

A man with a large, flimsy, leather hat and white beard works splitting boards for the exterior of some of the new buildings. He stops a moment, as tourists walk by, and asks, "Are you just arriving here? I have just arrived as well."

Pointing to the pile of wood beside him, he says, "These will be split out for the side of a building we're going to rise up here. Rather than saw them, I will split them out, follows the grain of it." He swings his axe with a grunt. "Perhaps another 50 or so before we'll have enough to cover this building."

Nearby, two little girls are hard at work, helping get food ready for the winter.

"We are braiding corn," says one, "so we can hang it up to dry."

A woman in a long dress and white cap, overseeing the girls' work, stops to explain what life is like for her family.

"We've had two children, and of course, we have a boarder, as many do here," she says. "There's mayhaps five and 30 unmarried men in the town. We take them in and raise them up. Care for them as a family member.

"They can't live alone, right? They've got no good wives!" she answers her own question with a laugh. "You needed to be about 16 to buy a share in this company, so all of these adventurous boys, many of them came over here."

Because there were so few jobs in England, many of those who came to the New World were teenage boys. There were plenty of opportunities to work in the colony.

An actor portraying a blacksmith stands inside his hot shop, sweat beading on his forehead as he explains that all the colonists had purchased an ownership stake in the Plymouth colony, and that was how they earned their living.

"I am not earning cash money during the course of this time. What we have been doing as a company is improving our assets," he says. "Now this next year we'll divide them, but it won't be little bags of silver. It will be the properties here and the animals we've increased and those sorts of things."

A feast of finance, not friendship

At the end of that very difficult first year, the Wampanoag and colonists came together for a great feast.

"When it came time for the harvest," a woman in Native American dress explains, "Massasoit [one of the Indian leaders] went up there with 90 men and five deers, and more or less shared the treaties and alliances they had made."

She says it was a way of advancing the good relations between the two groups.

"It wasn't something that was supposed to be a celebration every single year; it was something that had a business relationship. This was all about business when the English came."

But just as the reason for the feast has been re-interpreted over the years, so has the story of the friendship.

Historian John Kemp explains that the colonists eventually broke their treaties with the Wampanoag, which lead to many battles and the enslavement of many native people.

He says American folklore vilified the Wampanoag and turned the colonists into the embodiment of noble pioneers.

"The ideal of the Pilgrims is so strong. That [idea] comes from the Victorian period. People like John Adams, the second president, and his son, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, the cultural leaders were all very taken with this sort of romantic Pilgrim story, which has elements of truth in it, but also is a very vague and hazy distortion of what actually had happened."

Whatever the true origin of Thanksgiving, the celebration has turned into an annual event for all Americans to give thanks.