The first Thanksgiving is a key chapter in America's origin story

Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving in New England. Remembered and retold as an allegory for perseverance and cooperation, the story of that first Thanksgiving has become an important part of how Americans think about the founding of their country.


But what happened four months later, starting in March 1622 about 600 miles south of Plymouth, is, I believe, far more reflective of the country’s origins – a story not of peaceful coexistence but of distrust, displacement and repression.


As a scholar of colonial New England and Virginia, I have often wondered why Americans tend to pay so much less attention to other English migrants of the same era.

The conquest and colonization of New England mattered, of course. But the Pilgrims’ experience in the early 1620s tells us less about the colonial era than events along Chesapeake Bay, where the English had established Jamestown in 1607.

A compelling origin story

The Pilgrims etched their place in the nation’s history long ago as plucky survivors who persevered despite difficult conditions. Ill-prepared for the New England winter of 1620 to 1621, they benefited when a terrible epidemic raged among the Indigenous peoples of the region from 1616 to 1619, which reduced competition for resources.