Thanksgiving Virtual Bookshelf

An idealized rendering of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Photo caption

An idealized rendering of the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts.


Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1925; Oil on canvas, 30 x 39 1/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

(November 23, 2021)

As the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving approaches, the materials gathered in this virtual bookshelf from NEH-funded projects, Humanities magazine, and state and jurisdictional humanities councils provide a broad picture of this important holiday. Check out the Native American Heritage Month virtual bookshelf to better understand Native culture and Native interactions with European settlers.

NEH-Funded Projects

Beyond the Mayflower: New Voices from Early America, 15001676

This two-week summer institute provided a space for teachers to explore different voices and historical perspectives on the arrival of the Mayflower and the establishment of an English colony within Wampanoag homelands in 1620. Through this case study, attendees learned how Indigenous-colonial regional landscapes were built, evolved through collaboration and conflict, and ultimately dissolved politically and culturally.

Community, Conflict, Collaboration: Moving Beyond Two Peoples, One Story at Plimoth Plantation

Plimoth Plantation’s project allowed the museum to reassess its interpretive strategy in preparation for the 400th anniversaries of the Mayflower voyage and the first Thanksgiving. The technology and methods for presenting the larger story of 17th-century New England were reevaluated. A new interpretive plan was developed to encompass all of the museum’s living history sites, including Mayflower II, the Wampanoag Homesite, the 17th-Century English Village, and the Plimoth Grist Mill and Craft Center.

1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving

Through an NEH grant, Plimoth Plantation developed an exhibit, dramatic performance, teacher workshops, and a children’s book to explore the changing perceptions of the 1621 harvest feast over time.

The completion of a disaster plan and the rehousing of its historical records, consisting of more than 100 linear feet of pamphlets, maps, manuscripts, journals, and more, helped the Eastham Historical Society prepare for the 400th anniversary of the encounter between the Nauset (Wampanoag) people and the Pilgrims.

Seeds of Change: Transforming the Landscape of 17th-Century Plymouth & Patuxet

An NEH CARES grant helped support the retention of over seven full-time positions at Plimoth Plantation to continue the interpretation of both English and Indigenous people’s impact on the New England landscape. Seeds of Change will “trace the impact of human activity on the Patuxet-Plymouth landscape from 8,000 years before present through the 1630s,” when English practices had already begun reshaping the landscape of New England. This initiative included the planting of a pre-agricultural indigenous landscape, the installation of an apothecary exhibit, and a new research project looking at the Indigenous presence at New England’s early grist mills. Learn more about the Seeds of Change initiative here.

Out of Small Beginnings: Plymouth Colony and the Making of American Liberty

John G. Turner’s They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty, in part funded through the NEH Public Scholars program, is the new authoritative history of the Plymouth Colony and the pilgrims who founded it. Published in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower crossing, Turner’s book narrates the seventy-year existence of the colony and “tells how a variety of English settlers and Native peoples engaged in a contest for the meaning of American liberty.”

The New England Indian Papers Series: The Massachusetts Collection, First Contact to 1869

The Native Northeast Research Collaborative (formerly the Yale Indian Papers Project), through support from an NEH grant and collaboration with tribal nations throughout New England, New York, and the Midwest, prepared, edited, and digitally published The Massachusetts Collection. This collection contains primary source material about Native Americans in Massachusetts from 1649 to 1869 and documents their history, culture, and interactions with Euro-Americans. This past year, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and the Native Northeast Research Collaborative received additional funding through an NEH American Rescue Plan Grant for its project “On Our Own Ground: Pequot Community Papers, 1813 – 1850.” This grant supported the editor and editorial assistant positions for the project.

Digitizing Plimoth Plantation’s 17th-Century Historical Archaeology Collections

Key 17th-century archaeological collections from Plimoth Plantation were cataloged, digitized, and made available to public and scholarly audiences through this NEH-funded project with the University of Massachusetts. Learn more about the collections by reading Elizabeth Tarulis’s dissertation “We May Have Profitable Commerce and Trade Together”: An Analysis of 17th-Century Ceramics in Plymouth Colony and her accompanying talk, which was a part of the Diggin’ In series at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology.

Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts: Archaeology and Geophysics

Five years of archaeological excavation, laboratory analysis, geophysical survey, and pollen coring focused on the original 17th-century settlement in downtown Plymouth, Massachusetts, leading up to the 400th anniversary celebration of Thanksgiving will increase understanding of “the English colonial landscape, the environmental context and ecological consequences of colonization, and the interactions between Colonists and Native people.” Learn about some of the findings from the archaeological dig in “Finding the Pilgrims” and “Pilgrim’s Homes Excavated in Massachusetts.”

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims, a two-hour PBS American Experience film directed by Ric Burns, explores the political, economic, religious, and historical forces that led to the exile and eventual migration of the Pilgrims and their settlement in New England. The film attempts to correct common misunderstandings and emphasizes the seminal moment of the Mayflower’s passage during the 17th century.

Plymouth, Massachusetts: Landmark of Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians

Fifty community college faculty members gathered for two one-week workshops focused on landmarks in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Through these landmarks, Pilgrim settlement, interactions between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians, and “the enduring political, religious, literary and arts traditions of early American and colonial history” were explored.

Mapping a New World: Places of Conflict and Colonization in 17th-Century New England

This summer program, funded by an NEH education grant, allowed teachers an opportunity to learn about the history and landscape of 1600s New England through visits to major historical landmarks, engagement with primary sources, and work with leading scholars.


EDSITEment, NEH’s educational partnership with the National Trust for the Humanities, provides free lesson plans, student activities, and other educational resources for teachers, parents, and students. Expand your students' knowledge of the history of Thanksgiving with these EDSITEment lesson plans: Empire and Identity in the American Colonies, Mapping Colonial New England: Looking at the Landscape of New England, Images of the New World, Colonizing the Bay, American Colonial Life in the Late 1700s: Distant Cousins. Integrate Everything Your Students Need To Know About Immigration History, a closer reading commentary, into your classroom to help students understand the long history of immigration in the United States.

State Humanities Councils

Massachusetts Humanities 2021 series of Lunch and Learns hosted by Plimoth Patuxet Museums’s Deputy Executive Director and Chief Historian, Richard Pickering, follows the Pilgrims’ first year in New England. “Lunch and Learn 400 Years Ago: A Look Back at Winter 1621” will explore the first Thanksgiving and the pivotal events that followed.

Blog Posts

A Wishbone Gift and the Cranberry’s Rights: Celebrating the Holidays with Chronicling America

Plymouth Colony and the Beginnings of Liberty in America: A Q&A with NEH Public Scholar John Turner

Holiday Foodways

Humanities magazine

Who Were the Pilgrims Who Celebrated the First Thanksgiving?

Soldier of Fortune: John Smith before Jamestown

Firsthand Accounts

Uncovering Powhatan’s Empire

Summer School Open

How America Became “A City Upon a Hill”

A Capote Holiday Story Reminds Us How a Moment is Suddenly Here and Then Gone