The Pilgrims Weren’t the First to Celebrate Thanksgiving

Virginia has a claim to an earlier Christian Thanksgiving celebration

Virginians may have celebrated early Thanksgivings with wild turkey, like this one. Other historical accounts say the first Thanksgiving was scraped together from ship rations, oysters, and ham. A Drauglis/Flickr CC

Not only was there likely no special food at the first Thanksgiving, Pilgrims and Native Americans didn’t even feature. Contrary to what countless schoolchildren have been taught, the first recorded, official Thanksgiving celebrated on American soil took place in Virginia–at least according to Virginians.

This disruption to the historical narrative of Thanksgiving has been unfolding slowly over the past century, as records of an earlier Christian Thanksgiving than that celebrated at Plymouth Rock in 1621 surfaced and Virginians laid claim to this heritage.

“A year and 17 days before those Pilgrims ever stepped foot upon New England soil, a group of English settlers led by Captain John Woodlief landed at today’s Berkeley Plantation, 24 miles southwest of Richmond,” writes Matt Blitz for the Washingtonian. “After they arrived on the shores of the James River, the settlers got on their knees and gave thanks for their safe passage.”

More than three hundred years after the events of Dec. 4, 1619, this history came to light in 1931, when a historian stumbled on a cache of Berkeley Plantation documents compiled by a man named John Smyth. “Originally published by the New York State Library in 1899, the papers’ historical significance had gone undetected,” writes Blitz. Woodlief descendants latched onto this history, along with the then-current owner of Berkeley Plantation, Malcolm Jamieson.

The Pilgrims Weren't the First to Celebrate Thanksgiving
This monument marks the site of the first Thanksgiving according to the Berkeley Plantation account. Wikimedia Commons

“Jamieson, with the help of descendants of Captain Woodlief, instituted the first Virginia Thanksgiving Festival in 1958,” Blitz writes. “It’s been celebrated ever since.”  Held at Berkeley Plantation, this year’s festival included a parade and historical reenactors along with a craft market and, of course, a Thanksgiving dinner.

Virginians are wholly persuaded of their claim to the first Thanksgiving, Blitz writes writes. In recent days, people such as Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe latched on to the history of Thankgiving at Berkeley Plantation. In 2015, McAuliffe told WTOP radio station, “Forget about this little pilgrim picnic thing they had up, somewhere up in Massachusetts. We were the first place.”

The Virginians may have indeed felt thankful, but they were also under orders to be that way, writes Amanda Iacone for WTOP. Their funders in England had sent them along with an order that read:

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

Although there are earlier records of Spaniards, French Huguenots and English colonies in Maine giving thanks to the Christian God for their survival and wellbeing, modern Virginia historians consider this “the first official Thanksgiving,” Iacone documents.

However, there are no existing records that show how the colonists celebrated Thanksgiving, or if they did it more than once, Iacone writes. According to Woodlief’s direct descendant Graham Woodlief, who was president of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival, “Once they landed [on December 4] they kneeled and gave thanks for their safe voyage.”

If the settlers continued following the instructions given by their funders, they would have repeated the tradition each year. But there’s no way to know if they did. If so, the food would likely have been local game and provisions and a short religious observance, historian Nancy Egloff told Iacone. If so, however, the celebration was short-lived: The Berkeley settlement was destroyed in 1622, a year after the first celebration at Plymouth Rock.

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