Pilgrims, the Mayflower Compact, and Thanksgiving

by Tim Bailey

Unit Objective

This unit is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based teaching resources. These units were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Through this step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.

Over the course of three lessons the students will analyze sources about the voyage of the Pilgrims to America aboard the Mayflower, the writing of the Mayflower Compact, and the origin of Thanksgiving. These documents include a secondary source about the journey of the Mayflower as well as two primary sources: The Mayflower Compact (1620) and the letter by Edward Winslow (1621). Students will closely analyze these sources and use both textual evidence and visual representation of the text to draw their conclusions and present their understanding as directed in each lesson.

Lesson 1


Students will understand the reasons for the Pilgrims’ emigration to America and the difficulties they encountered and overcame during the journey. Students will demonstrate their understanding of these events by drawing a series of illustrations that depict those events and selecting direct quotes from the source material to use as captions. The captions will serve as direct evidence that the student is accurately interpreting the text. The students will then present their drawings in the form of a short oral presentation to the class. The teacher may allow students to create computer-based drawings or graphics as an alternative to an actual hand-drawn illustration.


The journey of the Pilgrims to America in the fall of 1620 was the culmination of a series of events that had begun decades before, when King Henry VIII abandoned the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England. During his reign and the reign of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, it became illegal to practice any religion other than that of the Church of England. A group known as “Separatists” demanded that they be allowed to practice religion as they chose. This was not tolerated by the English government, and the group found it necessary to leave the country. They relocated to Holland and although they could practice their religion, life was difficult. They stayed in the Netherlands for more than a decade but with a Dutch war against the Spanish looming and a feeling that their children were losing their family traditions, the Separatists decided to make a pilgrimage to America.



At your discretion you may choose to have the students do the lessons individually, as partners, or in small groups of no more than three or four.

  1. Hand out “Coming to America on the Mayflower.”
  2. “Share read” the text with the students. This is done by having the students follow along silently while you begin reading aloud, modeling prosody, inflection, and punctuation. Then ask the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while you continue to read along with the students, still serving as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English language learners (ELL).
  3. The students will now decide which six events in the story are the most important and underline those on their copy of the text.
  4. Hand out the graphic organizer and drawing supplies.
  5. Students will draw a picture of an important event in the story and select a quotation from “Coming to America on the Mayflower as their caption. For instance, a student may draw a picture of a ship in a storm and write “storms pounded the little ship” as the caption.
  6. The students will complete their graphic organizers, illustrating all six events the class selected.
  7. The students now make presentations to the class using their illustrations and quotations to tell the story.

Lesson 2


Students will understand the importance of the Mayflower Compact and be able to summarize the text by doing a close analysis of this primary source with guidance from the teacher. This will be done by “chunking” the text and asking precise questions so that the students can understand the archaic seventeenth-century language as well as the document’s underlying purpose. This understanding will be demonstrated through class discussion and completion of a graphic organizer.


After arriving on the east coast of North America, far north of the intended location for their settlement in the Hudson Valley, the Pilgrims found themselves facing a number of challenges. One of those challenges was the creation of an organized form of government. The Pilgrims had assumed that, upon reaching the land set aside for them by the Virginia Company, they would be under the governance of England and the king, although free to practice their religious beliefs. They had negotiated a trade agreement with the Virginia Company and had reached an amicable arrangement with King James. Yet the Pilgrims found themselves outside the jurisdiction of either the Virginia Company or the king, and they knew that without some kind of government their colony would devolve into chaos. William Bradford wrote that he was already seeing signs of factionalism in the group. The Mayflower Compact represents the establishment of that new government. The Mayflower Compact was signed on November 11, 1620, by forty-one of the adult men of the new settlement. This agreement established majority rule as the foundation for their new society.



  1. Pass out the abridged version of The Mayflower Compact. Punctuation and spelling in this text have been modernized and a small amount was abridged for the lesson.
  2. “Share read” the text with the students.
  3. Pass out the Document Analysis: The Mayflower Compact worksheet. 
  4. It is helpful to project an image of the worksheet so that the students can see it and follow along on their own individual copies.
  5. The teacher will be the guide for this class activity. Address one question at a time and help students reason out the best answer. This activity is designed to help students both build critical thinking skills and develop effective strategies when reading difficult texts.
  6. Show the students how to use the answers to the questions in order to construct a summary. For example, “The loyal subjects of King James have gone on a voyage for the glory of God and to start a colony in Virginia. They will combine themselves into a government so they can have order and preserve what they set out to do. They will make laws and select officials from time to time that are good for the colony and promise to obey them.”
  7. Use the information in the introduction to discuss with the students why the Pilgrims wrote the Mayflower Compact.

Lesson 3


Students will understand the actual events and circumstances surrounding what has come to be known as the “First Thanksgiving.” This understanding will be demonstrated through class discussion and completion of a graphic organizer. Students will do a close textual analysis of the letter by Edward Winslow written on December 11, 1621. Edward Winslow had crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower and survived the first terrible winter; he served as one of the leaders of the colony.


The Pilgrims’ settlement in Plymouth very nearly ceased to exist only a few months after it was established. Of the 102 Pilgrims who reached America in the late fall of 1620 less than half lived to see the spring. Several factors led to this calamity. Many of the colonists were very weak and sick from the Atlantic crossing and therefore fewer people were available to build shelters and forage for food. The supplies aboard the Mayflower had nearly run out. Additionally, since they had arrived so late in the season, there was no time to plant and harvest crops. During the winter of 1620–1621 both starvation and disease devastated the new colony. Fortunately for the Pilgrims they established a friendly relationship with an English-speaking Native American named Squanto. Squanto introduced the Pilgrims to Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket, and other leaders of the various tribes of the Wampanoag people who had lived near the Plymouth settlement for centuries before the Pilgrims had arrived.



At your discretion you may choose to have the students do the lessons individually, in pairs, or in small groups.

  1. Pass out the abridged letter by Edward Winslow to a friend, December 11, 1621.
  2. “Share read” the text with the students.
  3. Pass out the Document Analysis: Letter by Edward Winslow, December 11, 1621, worksheet.
  4. Students can brainstorm with partners or in small groups but must complete their own organizer for the assignment. Circulate around the room to check for reading comprehension. The vocabulary in some instances is going to be unfamiliar, but let the students struggle with it and figure out the meaning through the context. If they are truly stuck or context clues are insufficient, provide a simple definition.
  5. Students now answer the critical thinking questions. Emphasize that they must cite examples from the text in answering these questions.
  6. Class discussion: Have groups or individual students share their answers to the critical thinking questions. Compare those with the responses from other groups.

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Mayflower Compact/Pilgrims primary source/common core great activity

Using eyewitness and real source material to discover history is an excellent way to make history real and alive. Use history to teach history!

I am so pleased to have come upon such a wonderful resource

I am happy to have found such a resource. Trying it out this week, excited to do so!

thank you. This is exactly what I was looking for. I will be using it this coming week. I am looking forward to these lessons.

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