Most Americans are familiar with the story of the “First Thanksgiving,” a historic feast attended by pilgrims and Native Americans to celebrate a bountiful harvest which gave hope to a badly battered group of immigrants. Not many people, however, may be as familiar with the shelters that kept the pilgrims alive long enough to make it to the feast.
In July of 1620, a group of English Separatists seeking religious freedom (the pilgrims) set sail aboard the Mayflower. Their journey, delayed by turbulent oceans and water leaks, cast them into the New World short on supplies and frustrated by months of cramped, dangerous ocean sailing. When they finally arrived in present-day Massachusetts on December 21, 1620, they faced freezing winter weather that hindered their efforts to begin construction of their new settlement, Plymouth Colony. After waiting two days for better weather, the pilgrims began constructing a wattle-and-daub common house used for tool storage and the immediate shelter of a few men who would remain onshore until the rest of the settlement could be constructed.
As building progressed, about twenty men remained ashore at all times to provide security. Women and children were not permitted to go ashore at first which made their time aboard the vessel upwards of six consecutive months. It was a tense situation for all involved.
The colonists had brought English building techniques as well as tools, nails, and iron hardware but the land provided everything else they needed. They used axes to chop down trees and make rectangular pieces of lumber for framing. The roofs, made of thatch, kept out the rain, snow, and cold but easily caught fire. To make the roofs, they cut grasses and reeds from the marshes, and bundled them. Then they fastened them in layers to the roof. For the outside of the house, the colonists cut down trees and split the wood to make thin boards called clapboards. The clapboards were then nailed together over the frame of the house.
Each family was assigned land plots that were 50 feet deep. The width of the lot was about 8 feet multiplied by the number of members in the family–so a family of six would have received a plot of land approximately 50 feet by 48 feet, or 2400 square feet. That’s the same area of the average U.S. home with 2.63 family members according to the 2013 US Census.
Because of the dire food shortages and the harsh winter, many of the able-bodied men were too infirm to work. Varying diseases and maladies killed nearly half the immigrants during that first winter. By November 1621, only 53 pilgrims were alive to celebrate the harvest feast which modern Americans know as “The First Thanksgiving.” In December 1621, Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow wrote a letter in which he said “we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation.” From this letter, we can infer that at the Thanksgiving feast, there were no more than 11 buildings.
We can’t forget the role of the Native Americans in the First Thanksgiving! On March 16, 1621, the first formal contact with the Wampanoag tribe took place. A Native American named Samoset walked boldly into the midst of the settlement and proclaimed, “Welcome, Englishmen!” Samoset and his men were apprehensive about the Englishmen as they’d had deadly encounters with earlier explorers but he returned 6 days later with a delegation that included Squanto-a tribe member who had spent time in Europe and spoke English very well. Massasoit, the tribe’s supreme authority joined them shortly thereafter. After an exchange of gifts, the pilgrims and Native Americans established a formal treaty of peace. This treaty ensured that each people would not bring harm to the other, that Massasoit would send his allies to make peaceful negotiations with Plymouth, and that they would come to each other’s aid in a time of war. At the “First Thanksgiving,” the surviving colonists were joined by Massasoit and 90 of his men.
In the 1600s, Wampanoag families lived in a house called a wetu. Families erected these dwellings at their coastal planting grounds and lived in them throughout the growing season. With the coming of cold weather, people returned to the protection of inland villages. Dwellings in the villages were either long, multi-family residences or smaller, round wetuash (plural of wetu). The multi-family dwellings could house 40-50 people – usually four or fewer related families. Within these houses, each nuclear family had its own fire. The houses were usually 50-60 feet long, but they could be as long as 100 feet.
Wampanoag homes had a hole built into the very top of the house. This hole allowed the smoke of the indoor fire to escape. Sheets of bark above this hole kept the rain or snow from coming in. The family living there changed the position of this cover as the direction of the wind changed. They were built in a round shape so that it could be heated evenly by a fire and maintain adequate air circulation. This circular shape also represented many things in Creation that are circular, like the cycles of Life.
Here’s a goofy but informative video about wetuash:
Without these shelters, the American Thanksgiving tradition may have never developed. I’m thankful the Pilgrims survived and gave me a reason to stuff my face with food and enjoy the company of my friends and family today.