What historic accounts tell us about weather during the 1st Thanksgiving

By Carolyn Sistrand, AccuWeather staff writer

(Photo/Carolyn Sistrand)

Plimoth Plantation is a museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that offers a look into what the early settlement looked like when the pilgrims arrived in the 1600s.

(Photo/Carolyn Sistrand)

This photo shows the inside of the re-created home of William Brewster, one of the passengers of the Mayflower and early settlers in the Plymouth Colony.

(Photo/Carolyn Sistrand)

(Photo/Carolyn Sistrand)

An example of a home in the 17th-century English village at Plimouth Plantation.

(Photo/Carolyn Sistrand)

(Photo/Carolyn Sistrand)

(Photo/Plimouth Plantation)

A reenactment of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

(Photo/Plimouth Plantation)

Most who understand the story of the Pilgrims' arrival in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 know of the struggles these new settlers faced. With the help of the land’s Native Americans, the Wampanoag nation, the Pilgrims were able to overcome many challenges they faced as they started their new life.

To give thanks to the native population they all gathered for a three-day feast we know as the first Thanksgiving.

The storyline is familiar for most, but how much do we know about the weather conditions?

What the weather might have been like on the first Thanksgiving

“The fact that they were able to gather for three days, that they were able to play sports together, that they were able to exercise their arms which is the 17th century meaning for military demonstrations and practice, the weather must have been good,” said Richard Pickering, deputy executive director of Plimoth Plantation.

Plimoth Plantation

The main street of Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. (AccuWeather Photo/Carolyn Sistrand)

Located just off the shores of Plymouth, the plantation was built on a steep hill, which Pickering believes would have contributed to cold ocean breezes as temperatures started to lower.

From the documents that have survived, Pickering said that the date of the first Thanksgiving must have fallen between mid-September and the arrival of a second ship, The Fortunes, in the first week of November 1621.

Only the writings of one settler, however, may give some insight on what the conditions of the first Thanksgiving might have been like.

Edward Winslow, a traveler on the Mayflower and settler in the colony, suggests that the winter of December 1621 was rather pleasant then miserable. In Early American Winters Vol. 1: 1604-1820, a passage from a letter Winslow sent back to England said, "...the air is very clear and not foggy, as hath been reported, I never in my life remember a more seasonable year, than we have here enjoyed."

Early American Winters also describes the winter of 1620-21 as a "calm winter, such as was never seen here since," according to Thomas Dudley, a resident of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

While Winslow's account is about a month or so after the first Thanksgiving, the mention of an enjoyable winter, and no mention of any major weather event prior, could allude to those days spent eating and giving thanks were enjoyable days as well.

Knowing that they lived in a small, ocean-side colony on the New England coast can lead most to believe they did not enough the sunniest, most comfortable of their days.

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How weather played a role in establishing the first Thanksgiving

“The first 25 years of the 1600s is known as ‘the Little Ice Age,’” said Pickering. “The weather circumstances were extreme.”

Winters were tough for the pilgrims, especially in their first year at Plymouth.

According to Early American Winters Vol. 1: 1604-1820, the pilgrims' decision to land in Plymouth in the first place was largely driven by a combination of tide, wind and waves when the Mayflower was approaching a dangerous portion of the North Atlantic coastline.

Before their homes were built, some settlers remained on the Mayflower. Others lived in their new home, but they remained unfinished and many were damaged due to storms.

With insufficient homes and sources of warmth, the winters were miserable and illness was prominent. Many died and the pilgrims truly struggled to survive the elements.

“For English people, New England’s weather was very unfamiliar because seasons changed in different ways,” said Pickering. “The winter is softer in England.”

New England's unusual seasons and climate also led to many changes in the way the pilgrims were to go about growing and tending crops.

“Thankfully Tisquantum was here for them and taught them how to plant Indian corn, or maize," said Pickering. "He knew the signs of the seasons."

Tisquantum, famously known as Squanto, was a Native American who was taught English when he was enslaved and brought to Spain. He escaped and returned home to find that his tribe had been wiped out by disease. Famously, he later became a valuable asset to the pilgrims as a source of communication between the two peoples.

While many English books instructed farmers to start working their seeds in February, the Pilgrims soon learned that was nearly impossible in this new place. Pickering notes that while Pilgrims would decide to start planting in March, April would spoil what they thought would be the perfect time to grow their crops.

Tisquantum, however, would teach the Pilgrims the right way to plant on this soil using the unfamiliar maize. To fertilize the ground, he showed them how to use rotten fish because the old field would not reap a plentiful crop.

Pickering said that Tisquantum also taught them to look for natural sightings to indicate that it was time to plant the crop. For the Wampanoag people, the oak leaf shrinking to the size of a mouse's ear was the indication that the most extreme weather has past and it was safe to plant their seeds.

“The fact that Tisquantum remains to live with them and teaches them how to grow maize is critical to their survival," said Pickering. "Any English farmer would look at a grain and bring their own traditions to it."

None of the Pilgrims were practicing meteorologists. However, clues to their experiences lie in the stories left behind. Knowing that they struggled from harsh winters, lived on the coast and were experiencing seasons that were more radical than what they were used to, a conclusion that is certain is that whatever the weather may have been like, it played a major role in the day of the initial Thanksgiving just as the weather played a role in everything the Pilgrims did.

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