What Happened at the First-Ever Thanksgiving?

Historian Nathaniel Philbrick said it all began with a religious sect who wanted to leave England.

What really happened the first Thanksgiving?

Historian Nathaniel Philbrick said it all began with a religious sect that wanted to escape the power of the Church of England. One hundred and two passengers, whom are now referred to as the pilgrims, boarded a ship called the "Mayflower" and set sail for America in 1620.

But the pilgrims' progress was ill-fated from the get-go, said Philbrick. 

"Things would go very wrong from the beginning," he told InsideEdition.com. "They would have to pull in for repairs, all sorts of things, but finally they would leave England in September."

That put them way behind schedule. "The hope had been to go to the new world in summer and have the summer and early fall to build shelter," he said.

"But as it were now, it was looking like they're going to arrive in late fall early winter," he added. "The worst possible time to arrive. And on top of all that, they sort of got lost."

The pilgrims had been aiming for what is now modern-day New York. Instead they came ashore at Plymouth Harbor, much farther north, in what would eventually become Massachusetts. 

There, the pilgrims built their homes. What followed, however, was a brutal winter. 

"It is the winter from hell," Philbrick said. "By the end of it half of their number are dead. And it's not looking like it's going to get any better come the summer."

But then a Native American named Samoset arrived, startling the colonists with his knowledge of English, which he'd learned from fisherman who came to fish off Maine. It was through him that the pilgrims developed an alliance with a local tribe, promising to protect each other. 

The alliance saved the pilgrims, according to Philbrick. That fall, the two groups enjoyed what became known as the first Thanksgiving. 

"It was an outdoor affair," said Philbrick. "Most of the people were Native Americans. They may have had turkeys, certainly didn't have pumpkin pie, they had deer and they sort of ate around the campfire outside."

Unfortunately, the promise of that first Thanksgiving didn't last long and the alliance would deteriorate into war. But the idea of Thanksgiving — as a time for people to come together and break bread in a spirit of goodwill — remains.  

Watch the video above to learn more.