Five Things You Probably Don’t Know About Thanksgiving


When the Mayflower pilgrims and the Wampanoag sat down for the first Thanksgiving in 1621, it wasn’t actually that big of a deal. So what was going on? (National Geographic)

What was that 1621 Thanksgiving like? Use “Geography in the News” to find out.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Fake news.
Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, courtesy Library of Congress

Discussion Ideas


  • 2. A year before the first Thanksgiving, the pilgrims raided Native American graves. Why do you think the Old England settlers were so unprepared for the New England winter? Read through “The Pilgrims’ Harsh Thanksgiving” for some help.
    • Geography! According to Geography in the News, “[a]fter more than two months at sea, the Mayflower arrived too far north. The Pilgrims had anticipated landfall much farther south, perhaps around the Chesapeake Bay. Although the Pilgrims landed on Cape Cod in November, it was not until Dec. 21 that the site of Plymouth was chosen to settle. Dropped on a wintery foreign shore with little food, no shelter and a climate much harsher than England’s meant sure deaths for many.”


  • 3. The pilgrims could only settle at Plymouth because thousands of Native Americans, including many Wampanoag, had been killed by disease years earlier. What sort of epidemic wiped out so much of the coastal population of New England?
    • Scholars aren’t entirely sure. Traditional (and plausible) suggestions include smallpox, yellow fever, or plague.
    • A more recent explanation is leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection whose hosts were probably black rats, an non-native species introduced by Europeans in the early 1600s. According to one fascinating article, these rats “would become chronic carriers of disease agents, contaminating water and soil and infecting … other mammals. Fresh and stored food items such as maize, beans, squash, pumpkin, roots, nuts, berries, meat, fish, and shellfish, were also susceptible to leptospiral contamination.”
      • According to the CDC, leptospirosis “can lead to kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death.”


  • 4. The peace that led to the first Thanksgiving was driven by trade and tribal rivalries. Why was an alliance with the “Saints and Strangers” at Plymouth beneficial for the Wampanoag?
    • weakened political status. “Now, the Wampanoag [were] much weaker because of the disease, and they’re much weaker than their hated adversaries, the Narragansett,” says Charles C. Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
    • improved trade.The Europeans were valuable trading partners for the Wampanoag and other Native Americans in the area because they traded steel knives and axes for beaver pelts—something that, in the beaver-rich New England area, the Wampanoag considered essentially worthless.”


  • 5. Turkey was probably not on the table in 1621. What was? Read through our fun article for some help.
    • Main dish: Pilgrims were much more likely to eat ducks, geese, swans, cranes, and even eagles! Their Wampanoag friends probably brought venison (deer) and rabbit. One Pilgrim only wrote about seafood—lobsters, fish, eels, mussels, and oysters.
    • Side dish: Potatoes were not yet a part of either the Pilgrim or Wampanoag diet. Instead, the first Thanksgiving probably featured peanuts, berries, grapes, and plums.
    • Dessert: There was probably Thanksgiving pumpkin … but no pumpkin pie! The Europeans probably didn’t have luxury items such as butter and flour to make a pie crust—or sugar to make the pie! If Wampanoag or European settlers had a sweet tooth, they probably had access to honey and maple syrup.
    • Try some of these modern adaptations of period recipes from Plimoth Plantation.



Nat Geo: A Few Things You (Probably) Don’t Know About Thanksgiving

Nat Geo: Geography in the News: The Pilgrims’ Harsh Thanksgiving

Nat Geo: Thanksgiving

Emerging Infectious Diseases: New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619

Plimoth Plantation: Recipes: Taste of the Past

Leave a Reply