10 Things to Know Before Teachings About Pilgrims, the Wampanoag, and The First Thanksgiving

November is the perfect time to teach students about the time in America’s history when the Pilgrims arrived from England and settled in Plimoth Colony. It’s important that all lessons and activities involving Thanksgiving be historically accurate. This post will provide teachers and homeschooling families with some tips for teaching about the culture of the Wampanoag people who lived in the area prior to the European colonization. It will clear up some misconceptions and provide you with ideas and resources for teaching in November.

It is helpful to open your unit by helping students think critically about stereotypes. Helping them understand what they are by listing false stereotypes about Native Americans. Discuss why stereotypes are harmful. I also found it to be important to talk about cultural sensitivity. They will encounter images of Wampanoag people dressed in traditional summer clothing. A proactive discussion goes a long way. These lessons can be taught during a class meeting or as part of your anti-bullying curriculum.

There are many great books, videos and websites for supporting your study of the topic. Unfortunately, many of them include some stereotypes and errors. This is a great opportunity for teaching your children to find those examples as well as contradictions in texts and discuss the historical inaccuracies. Some of the best learning moments in my 3rd grade classroom each year have come from the fact that different sources made different statements about the same topic. It helped them with research throughout the remainder of the school year.

  • You may see “Plimoth” spelled different ways. The area the Pilgrims first colonized is now a town called Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, the historical accounts from Governor William Bradford refer to it as Plimoth. When speaking historically it is best to use Plimoth. 
  • There were no teepees. The Native People associated with the arrival of the Pilgrims are the Wampanoag. They are part of the Eastern Woodland nations. They lived in homes made from branches and bark. In the summer they lived in smaller dwellings called wetus and in the winter they relocated to larger, shared homes called longhouses. 
  • The Wampanoag people did not have horses or wear elaborate feather headdresses. Explain to the children that there are many different nations and tribes and that each nation has its own name, language and culture. Avoid creating headbands with fake, colorful feathers as a class project.
  • Do not speak of the Wampanoag only in the past tense. While their way of life has changed, they are still a very culturally active group.
  • Avoid the word “squaw.” It was once an Algonquin word meaning “woman,” but the modern meaning is offensive.
  • The Pilgrims did not “land on Plymouth Rock.” The Mayflower arrived in the area of Massachusetts that is now known as Cape Cod. They spent several days exploring the area and ultimately settled in the town that is now Plymouth. There is no historical record of Plymouth Rock.
  • The purpose of coming to America was not for religious freedom. The Pilgrims first left England and went to Holland where that desire was met. Although they had religious freedom in Holland, they found there were still obstacles. It was hard to make a living and they struggled to maintain their English identity. For those reasons they chose to sail to the New World.  
  • The Pilgrims did not leave England to “come to Plimoth.” They were actually sailing to the area of Jamestown, Virginia that had already been colonized. Bad weather and the onset of winter forced them to settle in Plimoth.
  • The Pilgrims did not live in log cabins. They built wood clapboard houses made from sawed lumber. 
I’ve taught this unit 8 or 9 times and it is a topic I always found to be fun to teach. I have always had the students document their understanding as we learned and assembled each individual project into a learning portfolio The final results really showcased their new knowledge and made an excellent keepsake. I just did a complete makeover of the lap book/ interactive notebook I had always used and am really pleased with the result. Not only did I update the fonts and graphics, but I also made it very user-friendly for teachers and students. 

The newly updated Pilgrim and Wampanoag Interactive Notebook can be assembled using only 2 sheets of 12 x 18 construction paper. There is not a lot of cutting, folding or glueing. You can pick and choose which activities you wish to include in your classroom or homeschool setting. 

I also added a teacher guide that outlines the sequence in which I taught the unit and now includes links to online sites you can use with your students with each activity. It also includes book lists for Pilgrims, the Wampanoag, and the First Thanksgiving. You can also view the recommended book lists on the Clutter-Free Classroom November resource page.

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By the way, if you are not already subscribed to The Clutter-Free Classroom newsletter I encourage you sign up. Subscribers receive weekly tips for organizing and managing a classroom as well as exclusive free printables. You can sign up here.

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