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Activity ideas for teaching about the Pilgrims and the Plymouth settlement in 1620

The real Thanksgiviing story
Posted by: Willjames

The Church of England under King James I was persecuting anyone and everyone who did not recognize its absolute civil and spiritual authority. Those who challenged ecclesiastical authority and those who believed strongly in freedom of worship were hunted down, imprisoned, and sometimes executed for their beliefs.

A group of separatists first fled to Holland and established a community. After eleven years, about forty of them agreed to make a perilous journey to the New World, where they would certainly face hardships, but could live and worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences.

On August 1, 1620, the Mayflower set sail. It carried a total of 102 passengers, including forty Pilgrims led by William Bradford. On the journey, Bradford set up an agreement, a contract, that established just and equal laws for all members of the new community, irrespective of their religious beliefs. Where did the revolutionary ideas expressed in the Mayflower Compact come from? From the Bible.

The Pilgrims were a people completely steeped in the lessons of the Old and New Testaments. They looked to the ancient Israelites for their example. And, because of the biblical precedents set forth in Scripture, they never doubted that their experiment would work.

But this was no pleasure cruise, friends. The journey to the New World was a long and arduous one. And when the Pilgrims landed in New England in November, they found, according to Bradford's detailed journal, a cold, barren, desolate wilderness. There were no friends to greet them, he wrote. There were no houses to shelter them. There were no inns where they could refresh themselves.

And the sacrifice they had made for freedom was just beginning. During the first winter, half the Pilgrims – including Bradford's own wife – died of either starvation, sickness or exposure. When spring finally came, Indians taught the settlers how to plant corn, fish for cod and skin beavers for coats. Life improved for the Pilgrims, but they did not yet prosper!

This is important to understand because this is where modern American history lessons often end. Thanksgiving is actually explained in some textbooks as a holiday for which the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians for saving their lives, rather than as a devout expression of gratitude grounded in the tradition of both the Old and New Testaments.

Here is the part that has been omitted: The original contract the Pilgrims had entered into with their merchant-sponsors in London called for everything they produced to go into a common store, and each member of the community was entitled to one common share. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belong to the community as well.

They were going to distribute it equally. All of the land they cleared and the houses they built belonged to the community as well. Nobody owned anything. They just had a share in it. It was a commune, folks. It was the forerunner to the communes we saw in the '60s and '70s out in California – and it was complete with organic vegetables, by the way.

Bradford, who had become the new governor of the colony, recognized that this form of collectivism was as costly and destructive to the Pilgrims as that first harsh winter, which had taken so many lives. He decided to take bold action. Bradford assigned a plot of land to each family to work and manage, thus turning loose the power of the marketplace.

That's right. Long before Karl Marx was even born, the Pilgrims had discovered and experimented with what could only be described as socialism. And what happened? It didn't work! Surprise, surprise, huh? What Bradford and his community found was that the most creative and industrious people had no incentive to work any harder than anyone else, unless they could utilize the power of personal motivation!

But while most of the rest of the world has been experimenting with socialism for well over a hundred years – trying to refine it, perfect it, and re-invent it – the Pilgrims decided early on to scrap it permanently. What Bradford wrote about this social experiment should be in every schoolchild's history lesson If it were, we might prevent much needless suffering in the future.

"The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years...that by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing – as if they were wiser than God," Bradford wrote. "For this community was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense...that was thought injustice."

Why should you work for other people when you can't work for yourself? What's the point?

The Pilgrims found that people could not be expected to do their best work without incentive. So what did Bradford's community try next? They unharnessed the power of good old free enterprise by invoking the undergirding capitalistic principle of private property. Every family was assigned its own plot of land to work and permitted to market its own crops and products. And what was the result?

"This had very good success," wrote Bradford, "for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been." Bradford doesn't sound like much of a Clintonite, does he? Is it possible that supply-side economics could have existed before the 1980s? Yes. Read the story of Joseph and Pharaoh in Genesis 41. Following Joseph's suggestion (Gen 41:34), Pharaoh reduced the tax on Egyptians to 20% during the "seven years of plenty" and the "Earth brought forth in heaps." (Gen. 41:47)

In no time, the Pilgrims found they had more food than they could eat themselves.

Now, this is where it gets really good, folks, if you're laboring under the misconception that I was, as I was taught in school.

So they set up trading posts and exchanged goods with the Indians. The profits allowed them to pay off their debts to the merchants in London. And the success and prosperity of the Plymouth settlement attracted more Europeans and began what came to be known as the "Great Puritan Migration."

Thanksgiving, in other words, is not thanks to the Indians, and it's not thanks to William Bradford. It's not thanks to the merchants of London. Thanksgiving is thanks to God, pure and simple. Go read the first Thanksgiving proclamation from George Washington and you'll get the point. The word "God" is mentioned in that first Thanksgiving proclamation more times... but that's what the first Thanksgiving was all about.

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Posted by: Pauline

We do a faux trip by sailing from england by way of the book ...If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 by Ann McGovern. We will start on Monday by doing a KWL on the first Thanksgiving and pack our suitecases for our trip. The book takes several days to read and provides lots of good info. When we "arrive" to america, we set up some pilgrim homes (by way of milk cartons, brown construction paper and shredded wheat) and wetus. We construct roads and stores as we learn about the pilgrims in our book. The following week we will have a pilgrim boy and pilgrim girl day using books Samuel Eatons Day by Kate Waters and Sarah Mortons Day by Kate Waters also. Another good book is On the Mayflower by kate waters. We also use a book called Giving Thanks The 1621 Harvest Feast by you guesssed it, Kate Waters.

We have a large feast two days before thanksgiving and half the children represent Native Americans and half represent the Pilgrims. Our art teacher also gets natural things (coffee grounds, green veggies cranberries, etc) and the "paint" using those ingredients for their placemat for the feast (on white clothe)

That is a pretty general summary of what we do, let me know if you need more explanation. Good luck!!

Thanksgiving help
Posted by: Trish

Well that's not very nice to give you 3 days. Egads! I know everyone expects miracles from us but my goodness! I can't imagine you can do more than learn a song - here's one with lots of info:

tune= Oh Susanna

Oh they left their homes in England
And prepared to take a trip.
They climbed aboard the Mayflower
And sailed upon a ship.

The year was 1620 -
On a cold November day
By the shores of Massachusetts
They arrived in Plymouth Bay.

Oh the Pilgrims!
Seeking to be free!
They came here to America
For opportunity!

The first year was the hardest
But their neighbors helped them out.
They met Native Americans
With Squanto as their scout.

They helped the Pilgrims plant the crops
Of pumpkins, beans and corn.
They shared a feast and that is how
Thanksgiving Day was born.


Good luck, Victoria!

Posted by: Lori

Here are some books I had on my list for Massachusetts -- They are in no particular order.

Schooner by Pat Lowery Collins

Henry David's House by Henry David Thoreau, Steven Schnur, Peter Fiore

Three Young Pilgrims by Cheryl Harness

The Orphan Seal by Fran Hodgkins, Dawn Peterson

M Is for Mayflower: A Massachusetts Alphabet (Discover America State By State. Alphabet Series) by Margot Theis Raven, Jeannie Brett

Tapenum's Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times by Kate Waters, Russ Kendall

On the Mayflower: Voyage of the Ship's Apprentice & A Passenger Girl by Kate Waters, Russ Kendall

Giving Thanks: The 1621 Harvest Feast
by Kate Waters, Russ Kendall

Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving by Joseph Bruchac, Greg Shed

And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? (Paperstar)
by Jean Fritz, Margot Tomes

Why Don't You Get a Horse, Sam Adams? by Jean Fritz

Who's That Stepping on Plymouth Rock? by Jean Fritz

The Big Dig : Reshaping an American City
by Peter Vanderwarker

Mayflower 1620 : A New Look at a Pilgrim Voyage
by Catherine O'Neill Grace, Peter Arenstam, John Kemp, Plimoth Plantation

If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620
by Ann McGovern

The Massachusetts 54th: African American Soldiers of the Union (Let Freedom Ring: the Civil War)by Gina DeAngelis

She's Wearing a Dead Bird On Her Head by Kathryn Lasky

Tituba by William Miller, Leonard Jenkins

A Picture Book of Paul Revere (Picture Book Biography) by David A. Adler, John Wallner, Alexandra Wallner

Riptide by Francis Ward Weller

An American Army of Two by Janet Greeson

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, illustrated by Ted Rand
(There is also a version illustrated by Christopher Bing)

A River Ran Wild by Lynne Cherry

Maria's Comet by Deborah Hopkinson (Maria Mitchell -- Nantucket)

Whaling Days by Carol Carrick (Nantucket)

Emily by Michael Bedard (picture book about Emily Dickinson)

The Mouse of Amherst (short story about Emily Dickinson but I did not write down the author)

The Bobbin Girl by Emily Arnold McCully
(Lowell, Mass)

A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar by Candace Fleming

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McClouskey (Boston Landmarks)

Comet's Nine Lives by Jan Brett (Nantucket)

Poetry for Young People Series
Emily Dickinson
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Robert Frost

Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow illustrated by Susan Jeffers

Cranberry Bog (did not write down author)

A Picture Book of John F. Kennedy by David Adler

Young John Quincy by Cheryl Harness

The Revolutionary John Adams by Cheryl Harness

Sleds on Boston Common (Boston Massacre) by Louise Borden

Childhood of Famous Americans
Crispus Attucks
Abigail Adams

Colonial America Books
Posted by: Dedi

I'm not sure if you are looking for novels or picture books, I have a few thoughts on both--

"Sarah Morton's Day" and "Samuel Eaton's Day" are EXCELLENT photoessays, but they focus on the lives of early Pilgrims. Also, they're picturebooks, but would still be a good reading task for your 5th graders. My third graders loved them.

Right now, my highest group is reading "elizabeth's Diary." It is the story of a young girl in Jamestown, told in 1st person through her journal entries. They are enjoying it. This is a Dear America book. There are also many other colonial and revolution books in the series. I think there are also different levels of difficulty. Also, if you have HBO, check the listings for their televised versions. I just recorded a great one set in 1777, complete with George Washington and all.

You might also try "if you live in colonial times" and "if you lived at the time of the american revolution." My kids always enjoy this series, and they do contain a lot of good info.

read aloud
Posted by: Anneliese

You didn't state the grade level you teach but one book for 4th or higher is Guests by Michael Dorris. It is a different take on the Thanksgiving Story. I also used a chapter book, an older one, called Pilgrim Stories, last year that I really liked because it did not glamorize the story and told more acurately how the pilgrims treated the Native Americans. I also really like Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich. It is about a year in the life of a young Obijawa (sorry about the spelling) girl. It is very well written and demonstrates how the Native Americans use their environment to meet their needs and also talks about encounters with settlers including a small pox epidemic.

Thanksgiving Feast
Posted by: Karen

We have a Thanksgiving Feast with our second graders every year. After studying the history of Thanksgiving, half of the second grade dress as Pilgrims (with paper bonnets/white trash bag aprons for the girls, hats for the boys) and half dress as Native Americans (with head dresses and vests from paper sacks). We all meet in the cafeteria where the cafeteria workers have made us cornbread and serve us apple juice. We make a snack mix with popcorn, peanuts, raisins, m&ms, etc. as seperate classes to bring. The teachers bring beef jerky. The students sit at the tables, alternating Pilgrim/Native American. We say a "Giving Thanks" poem together and have our Feast! The kids really like it!

Molly's Pilgrim
Posted by: Becky

We make our own "Pilgrims" with empty toilet paper rolls and scraps of fabric. They are a real hit. We line them all up and take their picture for our photo album. We also write our own stories about them, what country they came from, etc. It is lots of fun. I have been doing "Molly's Pilgrim" for years.

Plimouth Plantation
Posted by: mlg

Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts has a terrific website on lives of the earliest settlers in Plymouth Bay Colony. One reason that I particularly like it is that it gives a balanced view of the perspectives of both the Puritans and the Wampanoags who were the Native People that inhabited the region. It sure sets the stereotypical view of the earliest days of settlement on its ear. Be sure to use the spelling of Plimouth as that is the "old-world" form of the word.