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Weather on the First Thanksgiving

Photo Credit
Campbell House Museum

What was the weather for the Pilgrims?

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Thanksgiving travel always makes weather a big concern around this time of year, so I thought it might be fun to write about the weather that the Pilgrims encountered on their first Thanksgiving. Ironically, we know more about the weather than many other aspects of the celebration!

We believe that first Thanksgiving feast held by the pilgrims of Plymouth colony in 1621 was probably in September or October, rather than the last Thursday in November. No exact date was ever recorded, although we do know that it was a harvest festival.

Celebrating a fall harvest was a popular English tradition at the time—a celebration usually lasting several days—and the Wampanoag people were certainly familiar with the concept of celebrating the harvest as well. The Plymouth area would be harvesting from September through mid-October.

As new arrivals, the Pilgrims frequently described the harsh local climate; weather conditions and weather survival were common topics for the colonists.

So, the fact that they only wrote about the harvest festival and not the weather indicates it was probably relatively normal. For New England in mid-autumn, that meant mostly sunny weather in the mid-to-low 60˚s.

(Interestingly, it looks like 2018 Thanksgiving weather will also be milder than average in most of the country. See our 2018 Thanksgiving Forecast.)

Most history books record how difficult the previous year had been for the Pilgrims. After a much delayed, stormy sea voyage the colonists landed on December 21, the first day of winter. The harsh winter (45 of the 102 setters died) was followed by a rough spring, but the autumn brought a bountiful harvest. The arrival of Tisquantum (Squanto) had brought peaceable relations with Ousamequin, the Massasoit Sachem (great chief) and the Wampanoag confederation, including life-saving farming information, a trade treaty, and a military alliance.

Despite the inaccuracies of this painting, we still commemorate a moment of harmony and abundance, when two peoples celebrated in peace. Jennie A. Brownscombe (1914)

What most books don’t record is how difficult times had been for the Wampanoag people. From 1616 to 1619, the confederation had endured an epidemic (smallpox or maybe leptospirosis, 7-day fever) that had wiped out an estimated 40% of the tribe. The remaining survivors found themselves militarily weakened and facing uneasy relations with their stronger neighbors. When the Pilgrims settled the decimated lands of the confederation’s Patuxet tribe and befriended the last Patuxet survivor Squanto, it seemed as if a new ally had arrived to strengthen the confederation. For the Wampanoag, 1621 was a time of healing, good hunting, good harvests and renewed strength.

History would disrupt the amity but for a moment, there was peace and plenty. For three days, the remaining 53 Pilgrims and over 90 Wampanoag feasted, had games and competitions, prayed and ate some more. It was a time of sunny weather and celebration.

May this holiday week give you, our readers, sunshine, peace and a reason to celebrate.