“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 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.”
–Edward Winslow, December, 1621
Nearly all of what historians have learned about the first Thanksgiving comes from a single eyewitness report: a letter written in December 1621 by Edward Winslow, one of the 100 or so people who sailed from England aboard the Mayflower in 1620 and founded Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.
Just over 50 colonists are believed to have attended, including 22 men, four married women—including Edward Winslow’s wife—and more than 25 children and teenagers. These were the lucky ones who had made it through a rough entry into the New World, including a harsh winter during which an epidemic of disease swept through the colony, felling nearly half the original group. Some 78 percent of the women who had arrived on the Mayflower had died during the first winter, a far higher percentage than for men or children.
“For the English, [the first Thanksgiving] was also celebrating the fact that they had survived their first year here in New England,” Tom Begley [of Plymoth Plantation] points out.
The Plymouth colonists were likely outnumbered more than two-to-one at the event by their Native American guests. Winslow’s account records “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men.” Massasoit (who was actually named Ousemequin) was the sachem (leader) of the Pokanoket Wampanoag, a local Native American society that had begun dealings with the colonists earlier in 1621.