In 1620, a small ship called the Mayflower left Plymouth, England, toting 102 passengers—an assortment of religious renegades seeking a new land where they could freely practice their faith plus other adventurous, liberty-loving folks lured by the promise of land ownership and prosperity in the New World. They initially dropped anchor near the tip of Cape Cod; one month later, the Mayflower crossed Massachusetts Bay, where the Pilgrims, as they are now commonly known, landed at Plymouth Rock to begin the work of establishing a village.
The first winter was brutal, with only half of the Mayflower’s original passengers and crew living to witness their first New England spring. In March, the remaining settlers relocated ashore from the ship, where they received a surprise visit from an Abenaki tribal member who greeted them in English. Several days later, he returned with another Native American, Squanto, who taught the Pilgrims, hampered by malnutrition and disease, how to grow corn, extract sap from maple trees, snare fish, and detect both edible and medicinal plants. He also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, a local tribe, which would endure for more than 50 years and tragically remains one of the rare examples of harmony between European colonists and Native Americans.
In November 1621, after the Pilgrims’ first corn harvest was deemed successful, Governor William Bradford organized a celebratory feast and invited a group of the fledgling colony’s Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. Now remembered as the first “Thanksgiving”—although the Pilgrims themselves may not have used the term at the time—the festival lasted for three days. A holiday that now tends to stress immediate family bonds, its original spirit is a tribute to the family of humankind, and the values of liberty, mutual respect, and working together for the common good.