How many women were at the very first Thanksgiving celebration?

Bruno Cooke November 23, 2022
How many women were at the very first Thanksgiving celebration?
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The puritan tradition of giving thanks for harvests from American soil recently celebrated its 400th birthday, but some readers might be surprised to learn how many women were at the very first Thanksgiving celebration.

That is, depending on which Thanksgiving celebration you regard as the first.

Many people regard the first celebration of its kind to have been in October 1621. That’s when the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest in the New World.

But there was an earlier Thanksgiving celebration in Virginia, in 1619. English settlers who had just lain roots there after landing at Berkeley Hundred aboard the Margaret gave thanks ceremoniously nearly two years before the 1621 pilgrims people tend to be more familiar with.

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How many women were at the very first Thanksgiving celebration?

Taking the Thanksgiving celebration most people regard to be the first, in October 1621, the number of women present depends partly on at what age someone becomes an adult.

There were four married women. Their names were Eleanor Billington, Mary Brewster, Elizabeth Hopkins and Susanna White Winslow.

William Bradford wrote about the celebration in his history book Of Plimoth Plantation (original spelling). It originally came out in 1651.

There were also two young women, both age 19 (or one 19 and one 18). One was Priscilla Mullins; Bradford categorises her under “adolescent girls.”

The other was an unidentified maidservant.

Who else was at the first Thanksgiving besides these six women?

The six women who were present at the very first Thanksgiving celebration (in 1621) made up a small part of the whole group.

There were three other “adolescent girls”: Mary Chilton, age 14; Constance Hopkins, age 13 or 14; and Elizabeth Tilley, age 14 or 15.

Then there were nine adolescent boys, 13 young children, and 22 men. Altogether, they belonged to 25 family groups. 

All of the pilgrims at the “First Thanksgiving” were Mayflower survivors. Others died during the first winter of 1620/1621, and in the spring of 1621. No other ships arrived in Plymouth until after this celebration.

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But there was another, earlier Thanksgiving celebration

500 miles south of Plymouth Rock, and two years earlier, a group of settlers celebrated their voyage from England.

At Berkeley Plantation, Virginia, Natural Geographic writes, archaeologists believe they have found evidence that a “little-known” group gave thanks in December 1619, and “pledged to do so annually on the same date.”

They were the first boatload from western England. Unlike many of the other settlers, their focus wasn’t exclusively on tobacco profits; they were a “tight-knit group with a strong religious sensibility.”

But their time in Berkeley was short-lived. Excavations have revealed tobacco pipes and Native American arrowheads, which hint as to what happened to these earlier invaders. 

Three dozen male Berkeley settlers landed on December 4, 1619, Nat Geo writes. This suggests that there were, in fact, zero women present at the very first Thanksgiving celebration.

Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

What meats did they eat at the ‘First Thanksgiving’ in 1621?

This First Thanksgiving lasted three days. 53 pilgrims were present, and around 90 Wampanoag Indians.

But they didn’t tuck into turkey. Instead, the meats they ate included venison, goose, duck, oysters, eel, lobster and fish, according to WorldStrides

Historian Edward Winslow writes specifically in his book Mourt’s Relation that they killed and ate five deer.

Pumpkins and cranberries were also likely on the menu, although they didn’t take the form of pumpkin pies and cranberry sauce.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.