In 1621, members of the Pokanoket Wampanoag and a group of English colonists shared a three-day harvest feast in what is now the town of Plymouth.
The complicated history of that gathering — and how its meaning evolved over the next four centuries — is the subject of a new exhibit this fall at Plimoth Patuxet Museums, which changed its name from Plimoth Plantation last year.
Patuxet was the Pokanoket people’s name for the place the Pilgrims called Plimoth, after an English town.
“The new identity honors the fact that the museum grounds stand on land that is simultaneously Patuxet and Plymouth,” said Rob Kluin, communications director for the museums. “Our grounds have been Patuxet for thousands of years and only Plymouth since the area was renamed on Captain John Smith’s map.”
Plimoth Patuxet Museums, which includes the Patuxet Homesite and the 17th-Century English Village that depicts Pilgrim life, is currently open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., until the last day of its season, Nov. 28. For ticket information visit plimoth.org.
“Patuxet/Plymouth is the place where ancient traditions of gratitude in both Indigenous and European cultures merged in the autumn of 1621, and a new holiday of gathering and giving thanks began,” Kluin said
To mark the 400th anniversary of that event, Plimoth Patuxet has opened “We Gather Together: Thanksgiving, Gratitude, and the Making of an American Holiday” in the Visitor Center at 137 Warren Ave. Through artifacts and artistic representations, the display explores the relationship between the Indigenous people and English colonists that led to the original feast.
“We have to look at the context of the event,” said Tom Begley, one of the staff historians who put together the exhibit. “It came after a series of diplomatic efforts between the two peoples. That relationship is coming together at the harvest feast.”
Those efforts began in the spring of 1621, when the Pokanoket first approached the new arrivals who had settled on their land, opened communications, and taught the newcomers how to grow corn, a grain unknown to Europeans. When the Pilgrims planted it, it proved more successful than the grains grown from the European seed they had brought with them.
Historians have no documentary evidence for why tribal leader Massasoit brought a large number of his people to the feast, just a brief description of the event by Edward Winslow, a founder of the colony.
“That’s the tricky thing,” Begley said. “The only primary source is Winslow’s letter.”
However, Begley pointed to the Pokanoket tradition of seasonal harvest festivals observed at various times of year, such as the “strawberry moon” festival celebrated in June for the harvesting of the first fruits of the summer. And the English brought their own harvest traditions.
Darius Coombs, a Mashpee Wampanoag who is the former director of the museum’s Wampanoag Indigenous Program, said his community has a different perspective on what many consider America’s favorite holiday.
“It’s not a celebration for us, it’s a national day of mourning,” he said. “We know [Massasoit] showed up with 90 of his men. In my opinion, he must have been invited.”
The event’s purpose, according to Coombs, was to cement the alliance for a people who had lost from 70 percent to 90 percent of their population to diseases brought by European traders. “It was a chaotic time for us,” he said. “We kind of needed an ally. It was good timing.”
But in the long run, the alliance opened the door to a disastrous colonization. The Europeans brought their idea of “ownership of land” to the new world. His ancestors, Coombs said, “didn’t own the land. They were the land.”
The Plymouth Colony was the first successful colony to be established in America. “It opened the floodgates for others to be established,” Coombs said.
Plimoth Patuxet Museums also is marking the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving by screening a new documentary film produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian Channel. The showing will take place inside the Visitor Center on Saturday, Nov. 20, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at plimoth.org/events.
A good portion of the documentary “Behind the Holiday: The First Thanksgiving” was shot at the Plimoth Patuxet Museums. The museums’ deputy executive director and chief historian, Richard Pickering, and Indigenous historians Jonathan Perry and Coombs are among the film’s featured speakers.
And for three days beginning Thursday, Nov. 25, Pilgrim interpreters in the 17th-Century English Village will demonstrate how the colonists might have prepared for a harvest feast. Visitors will find them cooking some of the newly harvested corn and attending to daily chores such as caring for their goats, chickens, and other domestic animals.
The museums’ full-scale reproduction of the original ship that carried the Pilgrims across the ocean, called Mayflower II, also will be open to visitors daily through the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, though it may close earlier in the day on Sunday, Nov. 28, for winter maintenance. The ship is back at its Plymouth waterfront home after a lengthy three-year restoration. Tickets are available at plimoth.org.
Robert Knox can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.