The First Thanksgiving was 400 Years Ago

We all know the story of Thanksgiving. A hundred Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower, stepped out on Plymouth Rock with their buckled shoes and were greeted by Indians who proceeded to teach them to plant corn with fish. They had a big Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie with Cool Whip. Right?

A newspaper once noted that Thanksgiving is “a holiday that has no religious affiliation,” and that the whole tradition centers around food. School children are taught that it celebrates how nicely the Pilgrims and Indians got along.

But the Pilgrims’ faith in God is why we celebrate any of it.


John and Joan Tilley believed that the Church of England did not teach God’s word as they found it in their Bible. They were required to attend Anglican services, but they also met with other believers to study the Bible, which was against the law. So when their daughter Elizabeth was a toddler, they fled to Holland with other English Separatists.

Though the Dutch were tolerant, they were more bawdy and did not observe the Sabbath. And the English children, like Elizabeth Tilley, started speaking Dutch and becoming more like them.

So, after a dozen years in Holland, a band of Pilgrims decided to establish an English colony in the new world. Two ships set sail in August of 1620, but one began to leak so they turned back. It was left behind.

Forty Separatists (including Tilleys) and sixty-some others–recruited by London businessmen financing the trip–crowded onto the Mayflower, finally embarking September 20.

These pilgrims risked their lives to plant a colony for the “glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country” in the new world. During the 65-day trip, they ran into a storm. When the crowded conditions became unbearable, John Howland, an indentured servant, climbed to the deck for fresh air. He was washed overboard!

Luckily for us descendants, Howland got caught in the halyards and was rescued.

New World

By the time the tired band finally spotted land, one person had died and a new baby born. One hundred two souls arrived. The Mayflower dropped anchor off Cape Cod, where 41 men signed “The Mayflower Compact”–-the first agreement for self-government and rule of law in the new world.

Our nation’s foundations are undergirded by the faith of this handful of hardy believers.

That first winter about half of them died while they were anchored off Provincetown, Massachusetts. Both parents of thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Tilley died. So did her uncle, Edward Tilley, and his wife. Now an orphan, Elizabeth moved in with Governor and Mrs. Carver, along with two other girls. But before summer arrived, the Carvers had also died. No one knows who took in the girls.

When the Mayflower returned to England, just half the original number of Pilgrims watched it disappear from sight.


Of the eighteen Pilgrim wives and mothers who had left England, only five survived. By October, when the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoags to a harvest feast, four women and five teenage girls (three of them the sole survivors of their families) cooked and served what we now think of as the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving.

When I was fourteen, my family of four drove a few miles of Iowa’s gravel roads to a clan Thanksgiving dinner at Grandpa and Grandma Neal’s–twelve grownups and thirteen cousins. My sole duties the Thanksgiving of 1958 were to help carry food in from the car, and help do dishes afterwards. The rest of the time was spent in cousin-talk–about junior high, band, and basketball. One year I taught Cousin Ken to dance rock and roll in the farm house’s unfinished basement, right beside rows and rows of glass jars of Grandma’s summer canning.

Back: Vince Wells, Ken Shepherd, Patty Wells, Gloria Neal. Middle: Joy Neal, Susan Shepherd, Judy Neal, Jon Shepherd, Jane Neal Front: Dawn, Jacque and Bill Beaman

Quite a contrast to our ancestor, Elizabeth Tilley’s Thanksgiving. When she was fourteen, she helped cook and serve a harvest feast–-venison, wild fowl, turkeys, Indian corn, and other foods–-for 48 Englishmen, plus 90 Wampanoags.

What we call the first Thanksgiving feast in America lasted three days!

When she was about seventeen years old, Elizabeth Tilley married John Howland–the man who survived being washed overboard, and who was the thirteenth signer of the Mayflower Compact.. 

John and Elizabeth Howland had ten children. Their descendants, including us Neals, are scattered all over the globe.

Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday. Among so many other things, we thank God for family–even for that long-ago ancestor who as a teenager helped serve that first Thanksgiving feast 400 years ago.

Published in the Thanksgiving edition of The Des Moines Register, November 25, 2021:


  1. Well written. You’re so fortunate to have a legacy so directly connected to the Thanksgiving account. Hope your day today is filled with thankfulness and blessing.

    • I’m still surprised that it wasn’t part of our legacy growing up. I might have paid better attention to history! Today will be a blessed day, although I’ll be alone in blissful quiet. Guy is going to his step-clan gathering at a church camp, which is too much for me. May your day be filled with thankfulness for God’s blessings of feast and family!

  2. Well written article for the paper, we stopped The Register, so was nice to read it. I was born south of Dexter, grew up in the Early Chapel neighborhood, and also attended church there. Class of 61, EHS. Billy FOLEY, CW5 Retired AUS

    • Thank you. I do remember you. Did you go all the way through school at Earlham? Remembered that Lorimors descend from John and Priscilla Alden of the Mayflower, but Marilyn Lawson Bode said that they descend from another of the pilgrims. During basketball season, she and I rode the bus together, but never learned these details. I didn’t even know then, not until I discovered genealogy before Guy was sent to Vietnam, about 1968!

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