The first Thanksgiving — in Virginia

Published 6:44 pm Wednesday, November 27, 2019

By Fred D. Taylor

Editor’s note: This column originally ran in the Suffolk News-Herald in November 2005. It was updated in 2015 and again this week.

While most school children in the last few weeks have been performing plays celebrating that spectacular gathering between the Pilgrims and the Indians, the truth of the matter is they got it all wrong. Gasp!

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Despite popular American nostalgia that the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims after the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, it actually had its beginnings just a few miles from us along the James River at present-day Berkeley (pronounced Bark-lee) Plantation in Charles City County.

The year was 1619, 12 years after the establishment of Jamestown, when a group of 38 settlers aboard the ship Margaret arrived after having made a 10-week journey across the Atlantic. Upon their landing, they knelt and prayed on the rich Tidewater soil, with their captain, John Woodlief, proclaiming:

“Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacion in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

As historically recorded, this event was the first English Thanksgiving in the New World. So why the big deal about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving being at Plymouth Rock? Good question. Some historians follow the trail to northern-written textbooks (after the War Between the States, of course), but even then anything more than a cursory study of colonial history will lead one to the discrepancy between the dates of the first Thanksgiving. Yet, we continue today to recognize the Plymouth Thanksgiving as the first, despite the clear evidence to the contrary.

In fact, the irony of all ironies is that not only did Virginia’s Thanksgiving celebration occur before the one in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims had not even landed in America yet! The Pilgrims’ arrival would come one year and 17 days later in 1620, and their Thanksgiving celebration nearly two years later in 1621.

Celebrations of “thanksgiving” would become a deeply rooted American tradition, though usually brought on by periods of great hardship. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress proclaimed days of Thanksgiving every year from 1778 to 1784. Likewise, George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1789, and a few of his successors followed suit.

In 1863, Thanksgiving was made a national holiday, and in 1866, the tradition of recognizing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November was started by President Andrew Johnson. From that time on, every sitting president has recognized Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Nonetheless, the twists in the story continue. While the recognition of the holiday has been uninterrupted since 1861, the explanations of the origins of Thanksgiving have been numerous. For years, the residents of the Oval Office ignored Virginia’s claim to the first Thanksgiving, but that all changed in 1963. It took a Massachusetts Yankee by the name of John F. Kennedy to take the risk of alienating his constituency back home to tell the rest of the story. President Kennedy honored Massachusetts’ and Virginia’s claims in his proclamations of 1963 at the urgency of his Special Assistant Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a noted historian and political scientist. After Kennedy’s death, President Johnson mentioned Virginia twice, President Jimmy Carter recognized it in 1979, and the last to recognize Virginia’s claim was President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

Today, the struggle to tell the true story of Thanksgiving continues in classrooms across America, and even more so here at home in Virginia where it all started. For several years now, a group of concerned citizens have organized an annual event to celebrate the First Thanksgiving at Berkeley, and each year they recreate that historic event on the shores of the James River.

This year, as we approach 400 years after the 1619 landing, the necessity to tell the real Thanksgiving story is all the more important. So as you prepare for Thanksgiving this year, take a few minutes to reflect on this story, and to pass this tidbit of history along to others.

As for me this year, I’ve certainly got plenty to be thankful for, but in honor of those courageous 38 who arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619, I’ll be substituting my turkey and stuffing for Smithfield ham and Chesapeake Bay oysters.

Fred D. Taylor is a local historian and attorney. He can be reached at