New England’s first Thanksgiving, at least the one celebrated by European colonists, wasn’t in Plymouth, Mass.
There actually were Thanksgiving-type holidays in New England long before the Europeans arrived. Indigenous people had held harvest celebrations of their own for many years.
But when the Europeans did arrive, they held the first Thanksgiving that they actually called Thanksgiving in 1607 — in Popham, Maine.
The Popham Colony was a year-long effort to establish a British colony in Phippsburg, Maine, at the mouth of the Kennebec River. It began in the summer of 1607 and ended a year later in 1608. For one harsh winter a group of English settlers tried to stick it out at a small fort they built.
They did manage to build the first ocean-going vessel in North America, the pinnace Virginia.
During the winter of 1607-08, the group suffered a fire at its storehouse. The colonists’ president, George Popham, died, and so did several others in the group.
The colony also struggled because its leadership did not establish strong enough relations with the local Native Americans, who might have helped the settlers as they did in Plymouth. Nevertheless, there is a record of a 1607 feast — the first real Thanksgiving — with the locals.
The historie of travaile into Virginia, by William Strachey, tells the story of that first Thanksgiving, Maine style.
The Popham colonists had reached out to Nahaniida, a Native American, and invited him to come with friends to visit the fort. In the entry for October 4, Strachey records:
There came two canoes to the fort, in which were Nahaniida and his wife, and Skidwares, and the Casshabaes brother, and one other called Amenquin, a Sagamo; all whom the president feasted and entertained with all kindness, both that day and the next, which being Sunday, the President carried them with him to the place of public prayers, which they were at both morning and evening, attending with great reverence and silence.
The Native Americans received gifts from the colonists. Following the feast, they returned up the river to forest that sheltered them from the elements. The Popham colonists, however, stayed in their small fort near the ocean, which left them exposed to a harsh winter.
In May, a supply ship brought the disheartening news that their chief financial backer, Sir John Popham (George’s relative), had died.
The colonists decided to call it quits. Though the records indicate they had traded furs and found other natural resources, they had no will to remain.
When an English supply ship arrived, the remaining colonists – now leaderless – chose to return to England.
Thanks to: The Holiday Book by Martin Greif. This story was updated in 2021.
Image: Popham Colony Site By Spyrosparx – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72956248.