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The Wampanoag: A Thanksgiving Lesson

What were the origins of the first Thanksgiving? Students will look to the Wampanoag Indians' meaning of Thanksgiving for a new understanding of this annual holiday. This is a fun and informative activity to help students learn and review the history of Thanksgiving.
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Lesson (926)

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  • Students will understand the Wampanoag people.
  • Students will consider the background of Thanksgiving and what the holiday means to them today.



  1. Ask for volunteers to tell the story of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. Write the basic details on the board. These might include arrival on the Mayflower, help from friendly Indians, and a harvest meal including corn and turkey.

  2. Ask the students: “From whose point of view do we usually hear the Thanksgiving story?” We may know that the Pilgrims were leaving religious persecution in Europe and that they were trying to make a new home in America; but what do we know about the Indians whose home it already was?

    Background Information:

    The Indians in the classic Thanksgiving story are the Wampanoags, a tribe that has lived for thousands of years in what is today coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Wampanoags experienced difficult times during the beginning of the 1600s when they were attacked by a warring tribe to the north; they were also devastated by a series of epidemics that killed many of their people – all but one of the Patuxet Wompanoag tribe. Then, in 1620, a ship carrying European settlers landed off the coast of Massachusetts. The people, who would eventually be called Pilgrims, started a settlement at an abandoned Patuxet Wampanoag village. Some native people helped them through their first difficult year (nearly half of the Pilgrims starved to death) teaching them how to grow and gather native food. The two groups signed a treaty of friendship that probably meant very different things to each of them. Because the Wampanoags, like most Native Americans, had no concept of owning land, it was most likely just a sign of goodwill. In European culture, however, a treaty meant the land now belonged to them. The Wampanoags also probably found no harm in signing such a pact with a group of people who seemed so harmless and inept; after all, the white settlers were struggling just to stay alive. When the Pilgrims harvested their first crop, about a year after their arrival, they shared some food with Wampanoags who happened to be visiting. This was the first Thanksgiving.

  3. After you've shared the Wampanoag's story with the students, direct them to Plimoth Plantation's website about the tribe. Working in pairs, have them complete the Wampanoag Thanksgiving Worksheet.


Use the Wampanoag Thanksgiving Answer Key to check students’ work.

Extension Activities

  • Use the lessons and resources in TeacherVision's Thanksgiving Theme.
  • Research and study other harvest festivals around the world.
  • Draw pictures of favorite Thanksgiving memories.
  • Visit the Plimouth Plantation's interactive website to learn more about the Wampanoag and the first Thanksgiving:

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