Thanksgiving on the 400th Anniversary of the Pilgrims' Landing

On November 11, 1620, Pilgrims anchored the Mayflower ship at what we now call Provincetown Harbor, Cape Cod. Although they ventured ashore there, it was a little later at nearby Plymouth Rock where, as most children are taught, they first stepped foot in America. There is some dispute about exact dates and locations, but one fact is known: They did not celebrate the first Thanksgiving that year.

Plymouth Hosts Thanksgiving Parade
Townspeople dressed as pilgrims during 2004's Thanksgiving Parade in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Michael Springer/Getty

In fact, some historians argue that the first Thanksgiving happened a year earlier in Virginia, at Charles City County. It was there, in 1619, that 38 English settlers held a celebration under order from the group's charter to mark a day that would be "yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

However, it's accepted by most that a 1621 feast in Plymouth was the first Thanksgiving in the country. That occasion came after the Pilgrims' first winter in the new country, which was brutal and took the lives of many. After the local Wampanoag tribe befriended and taught them how to harvest food and fish, they decided to gather with their new neighbors for a bountiful fall feast in 1621.

The confusion over the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving continues today, as many people have called for celebrating it this year with the mistaken belief that the first feast between settlers and Native Americans occurred shortly after the Pilgrims arrived. There have been numerous examinations and think-pieces written about what Thanksgiving means this year, as it has been 400 years after the settlers arrived, lending to some of the confusion.

Much of what's been written also details how the goodwill between the Native Americans and the colonists didn't last long, as the settlers brought disease that killed off many Native Americans, while others were forced off their lands or outright massacred. Today, many members of the Wampanoag tribe, as well as tribes throughout the country, instead refer to Thanksgiving as the National Day of Mourning.

Of course, many parallels have been drawn to those early diseases with how COVID-19 has affected tribes. The pandemic has disproportionally struck Native American reservations, which lacked the resources available to the rest of the country.

The state of Massachusetts, with the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce, set up the Plymouth 400, a planning committee dedicated to commemorating the anniversary of the Mayflower's landing. In light of the ongoing pandemic, the group canceled most of the events planned for this year, which included ceremonies, events and festivals, which would have also illuminated some of the trouble that past settlers brought upon the tribes. Events that weren't canceled became virtual or were pushed to next year.

As of right now, no plans have been announced regarding the city of Plymouth's annual Thanksgiving parade—which was canceled this year—for 2021. The city will surely mark the occasion if it's deemed safe to do so; undoubtedly, parades and festivals throughout the country will do the same.