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Lesson Plan: Who Were the Pilgrims? Grades 4-10

Posted on November 17 2015

Who Were the Pilgrims

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By Seth Dixon, Ph.D & Julie Dixon

For many Americans, hearing the word ‘Plymouth’ brings to mind the Mayflower, Thanksgiving, and a myth that involves Pilgrims disembarking after months at sea onto Plymouth Rock itself, without a backward glance. It’s a rose-colored glasses version of history that both sanitizes the experience and diminishes the life and death struggles the Pilgrims faced.

Before seeking refuge in the New World, many of the Mayflower’s passengers, Separatists who called themselves Saints, had left England for Holland in 1608. They had broken ties with the Church of England, viewing it as nearly as corrupt as they considered the Catholic Church. In Holland, however, the emigrants were excluded from the guilds and felt Amsterdam’s loose, cosmopolitan culture was leading their children away from their strict faith. The Separatists wanted a place not only to practice their religion but to retain their language and culture while obtaining greater economic opportunity. After regrouping in England, they received permission to create a settlement somewhere between the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Hudson River.

On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth, England with 102 passengers (including 40 Separatists) and 48 crew members. It must have been agonizing as it was the third time they’d set sail. In August, half of the passengers had originally been booked on the Speedwell, which had sprung a leak, causing both ships to return to port twice before they boarded the Speedwell’s passengers onto the Mayflower. Already cramped with human cargo, the ship also carried the necessities of starting a new life: tools, food, drink, clothing, arms, and household items such as pots and kettles, plus sheep, goats and poultry.

The weeks lost to backtracking put the Mayflower in a dangerous position due to the western gales on the North Atlantic that are especially violent in September. The storms, overcrowded conditions, diminished food supplies and cold made for a grueling experience amplified by the ship being swept off course. After 66 days at sea, the Mayflower reached the shores of Cape Cod, anchoring at the site of Provincetown on November 21, 1620, after again unsuccessfully trying to sail south to their intended location. Before anyone was let ashore, all the men signed the Mayflower Compact, which was created to enact just and equal laws that protected each man’s rights. Only then did they send an exploratory party ashore to find suitable shelter and the food they so desperately needed.

Hundreds of miles farther north than intended and having arrived in late fall, the Pilgrims weren’t prepared for the snow and cold of New England. As they began exploring they found some empty villages. The previous year, a group of Europeans, including John Smith, had visited the area and unknowingly spread diseases that the Natives had no immunity against, causing thousands to perish. The Pilgrims uncovered mounds of earth in these villages and found stored corn and beans.  As the weeks passed and the Pilgrims not only took the stored food but also disturbed graves across Cape Cod, the wrath of the remaining Natives was raised to the point that the Mayflower had to sail  on.

On December 18th, the Mayflower docked in Plymouth’s protected harbor. The Pilgrims continued to live aboard the Mayflower throughout that winter while they built onshore. Meanwhile, they fought an epidemic with symptoms found in tuberculosis, scurvy and pneumonia that ultimately claimed the lives of half the passengers and crew. It wasn’t until March 1621 that the pilgrims were healthy enough to permanently move off the ship. Soon thereafter, Squanto, a native who spoke English due to his time as a slave, and Samoset, another native, helped translate and mediate between the colony and Chief Massasoit. Squanto and Samoset also taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn, fish, and trade furs so they could pay the debt they owed to the investor who had fronted them the money to make the voyage. Grateful for the plentiful harvest of 1621, the Pilgrims held a feast with Samoset, Squanto, Massasoit and ninety other Wampanoag tribesmen, observing the first Thanksgiving.

Today, tourism serves as Plymouth’s financial backbone with a replica of the Mayflower named Mayflower II,the Pilgrim Hall museum, and Plymouth Rock anchoring the downtown’s historical importance. Located a few miles away, Plimoth Plantation is a living museum replica of the 17th century walled village (as spelling was phonetic then, the city and museum use different, accepted spellings to distinguish the city from the museum) and a Wampanoag Village. The homes are built and furnished according to the times, vegetables grow in the gardens and the costumed actors have adopted the names, accents and viewpoints of people who lived in the colony. The Wampanoag Villagers dress according to the period but converse in a normal, 21st century fashion to avoid denigrating stereotypes and provide clear answers.

Thanksgiving in Plymouth is a bittersweet treat. While hordes gawk at Plymouth Rock and enjoy the parade, across the street and up the steep hill from Plymouth Rock stands a statue of Massasoit, overlooking Plymouth Harbor and the Mayflower ll.

The site is used for the National Day of Mourning, observed by Native tribes on Thanksgiving Day in protest of past Pilgrim narratives. It serves as one of the many reminders that this land was populated prior to thePilgrims’ arrival. Four hundred years has brought incalculable changes to this land, but time has yet to heal the anger and regret felt by many Natives for a time they did not know but still long for.

Both Plymouth, Massachusetts and 1621 loom large in American history and how we tell the story of what it means to be an American. Telling the simple story of a Thanksgiving filled with cooperation and bounty helps to strengthen a sense of purpose, and imagine that the building of a new nation was a peaceful proposition. Every year, millions of Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and evoke the memory of the Pilgrims as a cornerstone of American heritage. In 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, many in the government felt that the country had politically and spiritually lost its way and forgot what it should be. Thanksgiving had been a regional holiday celebrated by a few states and on different dates; it was in this time of national crisis that Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that Thanksgiving would be a national holiday celebrated throughout the country on the fourth Thursday in November. Thanksgiving was designed to be a day to remind Americans that this nation was worth fighting for, and worth saving.


Thanksgiving: The Holiday and the Feast

By Seth Dixon, Ph.D & Julie Dixon

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday in November. Most families and friends eat turkey, stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, squash, or pumpkin as part of their celebration. Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? Why do we eat these foods?

President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, but the celebration began with the Pilgrims. Their ship, the Mayflower, had been swept off course and arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, on November 9, 1620. They were supposed to land in Virginia! Landing hundreds of miles farther north meant the growing season was shorter and that winter was much colder. The Pilgrims were sick and didn’t have much food. Nearly half of them died. The first year was very difficult. They worried about starving. There were no stores to buy food and other goods. The Pilgrims had come from towns in Europe that had markets, so some of them didn’t know how to grow their own crops, especially not in this new environment and climate.

The Wampanoag people showed the Pilgrims what crops to grow in the New England region. They taught the Pilgrims to put a fish in the ground to act as fertilizer (or food) for the soil. They taught the Pilgrims which plants grew well together, such as corn, beans, and squashes (including pumpkins!). Barley, oats, peas, parsley and other herbs, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and turnips were also grown.

The Wampanoag also taught the Pilgrims how they fished. The Pilgrims set traps for lobster and collected shellfish, such as mussels and clams. The Pilgrims also hunted deer, rabbits, turkeys, pheasants, geese, and ducks. They learned about cranberries and picked them from bogs. They gathered mushrooms, walnuts, chestnuts, and beechnuts from the forests.

When fall came and the crop was bountiful enough to get through the coming winter, the Pilgrims were grateful. They wanted to give thanks to God for helping them to survive. Governor William Bradford sent men out to hunt, so they could have a harvest festival. The Wampanoag leader, King Massasoit, along with 90 men, joined the Pilgrims for three days of celebration.

They ate deer, seafood, and fowl (birds). Turkey was one of the fowl, but they likely ate ducks and geese, too. While they didn’t have bread stuffing like we eat, they stuffed the birds with nuts and onions. The meals offered many types of meat because Pilgrims considered it to be very healthful. Beans, pumpkins and other squashes, nuts, berries, and corn (used to make bread or porridge) were also served. In addition to eating, they hunted and enjoyed entertainment.

The Pilgrims didn’t plan to start an annual tradition; the festival wasn’t held in following years. President George Washington announced the holiday in 1789, but it took more than 200 years from the original event for Thanksgiving to be celebrated on the same day in each state. Because no one knows exactly when the Pilgrims celebrated, people had Thanksgiving when they wanted to. Some states didn’t celebrate it at all.

As cities grew, stores became well-stocked, and eating deer and seafood became less common. Dishes like potatoes or sweet potatoes were unknown to the Pilgrims, but later became a part of the American diet. Pilgrims ate pumpkin as a side dish rather than as a dessert pie. That’s right! There was no pumpkin pie. They didn’t have the wheat flour or extra sugar for pies. Cranberries were not eaten by the Pilgrims as a sauce with turkey, but rather as dried berries. Turkey, a delicious bird only found in America, became the meat of choice in part due to Sara Josepha Hale.

Sara Josepha Hale was an author who wrote the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” After reading a Pilgrim’s journal, Hale wanted to recreate that first Thanksgiving feast. Beginning in 1837, Hale contacted president after president for over 20 years to make Thanksgiving a uniform, national holiday. She published recipes for turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie in Godey’s Lady’s Book, some of the most important ladies’ books of the time. As editor, Hale was able to discuss the importance of Thanksgiving and share recipes for many years. Her Thanksgiving recipes, distributed to thousands of women, shaped the Thanksgiving menu and how we celebrate now. President Lincoln responded to Hale’s letter in 1863 by making Thanksgiving a national holiday on a set day. Hale is considered the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.”

Like the Pilgrims before us, we have much to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!


Maps101 was one of the first online subscriptions services for K-12 schools with the purpose of supplementing and complimenting traditional history, social studies and geography curriculum materials. is a web-based interactive database of teacher lesson plans, geography tools, online learning games, dynamic interactive map modules and over 4,000 viewable and printable history, thematic, reference, outline, current events and animated maps. Explore our new and growing Field Trip Library feature, where you can take your students on a journey without leaving the classroom.  

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