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Investigating the Story of the First Thanksgiving

Janelle Cox

Have you ever wondered why there are so many versions of the first Thanksgiving? Behind every myth there is some truth. Here are a few lessons and activities for students K-12 that will explore the myth surrounding the Wampanoag, the pilgrims, and the first Thanksgiving.

Become a History Detective

Plimoth.org allows students to take the role of a history detective and investigate what really happened at the first Thanksgiving in 1621. Through this interactive online activity, students will read letters, learn about the Wampanoag Indian traditions, visit a pilgrim's home, learn about what happened at the harvest celebration of 1621 and be able to separate fact from fiction. There is also a teacher's guide that offers goals, materials, and introductory activity ideas.

Exploring Common Myths

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This activity challenges students to explore common believed myths of the Wampanoag Indians in colonial America. To begin, divide students into three groups and assign each group one the following myths.

  • Myth: The First Official Thanksgiving took place near Plymouth Rock in 1621.

Truth: There was a harvest celebration but the term "Thanksgiving" was used to describe a feast that was held in 1623.

  • Myth: The Pilgrims shared pumpkin pie, corn on the cob, and sweet potatoes with the Wampanoag Indians.

Truth: They did share food; corn was one of the dishes, but pumpkin pie was not invented yet.

  • Myth: The Wampanoag Indians wore elaborate headdresses with many feathers.

Truth: Although Native Americans did wear headdresses which are very important to their heritage, they did not wear them or war bonnets to the feast.

The group’s assignment is to find out what the truth is in the myth they were assigned and what it reveals. As a group, they must prepare a three-minute presentation explaining their findings. They may use any materials that are in class or on the Internet to help in their search.

If You Were at the First Thanksgiving

Read aloud the story "If You Were at the First Thanksgiving" by Anne Kamma. Ask students, "What happened when the pilgrims met the Indians for the first time?" And "Was there a special way to grow corn?” Discuss how the children contributed to the feast, what they wore, and if there was pumpkin pie and a turkey. Talk about the pilgrims’ friendship with Squanto and other Native Americans. Next, divide students into groups of two and have them answer the following questions.

  1. What surprised the pilgrims when they first met the Indians?
  2. Why did the pilgrims and Native Americans agree to the peace treaty?
  3. Why did the Puritans call Squanto their “special instrument sent of God”?

Once the groups have answered their questions, come together as a class and discuss their answers. As a class, elaborate on their answers and add specific details such as how Squanto taught the Puritans how to fish, and how to plant and gather food. Next, as a class, complete a Venn diagram depicting that of a pilgrim to that of a Wampanoag Indian.

Comparing Stories

This activity has students comparing several versions of the first Thanksgiving. Students will begin by understanding the mainstream version of the story and record the main events that happened. They can find this version on the National Geographic website. Next, students can read the accounts of the first Thanksgiving from the viewpoint of the Native Americans, the conservative and the tea party activists. Once they have read all versions of the first Thanksgiving, divide students into groups and have them answer the following questions.

  • What do all of these stories have in common?
  • What are some of their differences?
  • What is the most mainstream version of the first Thanksgiving? Why do you think it became the most dominate account about Thanksgiving?

Discuss as a class how and why they think different groups of people interpret events in completely different ways.

Investigating the Story of First Thanksgiving Links

Use the following links to help in your research into investigating the story of First Thanksgiving.

The Mainstream Version

The Pilgrims and America's First Thanksgiving

The Native American Version

Mass Moments: First “National Day of Mourning” Held in Plymouth, Nov. 26, 1970

Do you have any activities or lessons that explore the first Thanksgiving? Please share your ideas in the comment section below. We would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who draws on her 15 years of professional experience in the education system. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for About.com, where she provides educational information and lesson plans for teachers around the globe.