Friday, November 20, 2015

The First Thanksgiving

For the past several years, I’ve taken late November as an opportunity to write about Thanksgiving—the holiday and the practice of giving thanks. (See here. And here. Oh, and here too.) Let’s just call it my little attempt to preserve an official day of thanks to God from being swallowed by retailers’ desire to maximize Christmas profits. This year, we’re traveling to the South for our bit of Thanksgiving trivia, so to get you in the mood, here’s a bluegrass version of Turkey in the Straw for your listening enjoyment while you read.

The South, you say? But everyone knows the Pilgrims and Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving in modern-day Massachusetts. That’s what all the books say in school. 

One of the things I’ve always found amusing about living in Virginia is the annual The-First-Thanksgiving-Was-in-Virginia November classic that appears in local papers across the state. You’d think home of such famous places as Jamestown (site of the first permanent English settlement in North America), Yorktown (site of the British surrender in America’s revolution), Appomattox (site of the end of the American Civil War), Arlington (perhaps the most famous military cemetery in the world), not to mention some of the world’s most famous historical figures (Washington and Jefferson top that list) would let Massachusetts have this one. But no.

You see, there was a thanksgiving observation in Virginia on December 4, 1619—while the
17th century re-enactors at Jamestown, VA
Pilgrims were still in Europe—when a group of Englishman landed at an area called the Berkeley Hundred in the fledgling Virginia colony. (The various “Hundreds” in early Virginia derive their name from the hundred-acre tracts the Virginia Company awarded to investors who brought settlers to the colony.) The new arrivals' charter decreed that “
the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Berkeley Hundred later became Berkeley Plantation. The manor house on the current site was built in 1726. Benjamin Harrison (signer of the Declaration of Independence) and William Henry Harrison (ninth president of the United States) were both born there.

From what I’ve been able to find, the Thanksgiving observance at Berkeley was more a prayer service than a harvest feast. That makes sense since people who had just arrived probably wouldn’t have squandered limited provisions on a feast when they had to wait nearly a year until their first harvest.

With Thanksgiving sometimes turning into a Day of Gluttony and Sports, I kind of like the idea of returning it a simple prayer service. However, when it comes to the who-got-there-first argument, I’m going to give this one to Massachusetts since it seems the Virginia thanksgiving was localized to a particular place/group and not colony-wide. Besides, can you imagine how difficult it would be to keep Thanksgiving separated from Christmas if we celebrated it in December?


  1. That's very interesting. I had no idea.

    Yes, I'm sure it was a true giving of thanks back then.

    No football either.

  2. I'm amazed you have Thanksgiving Day so close to Christmas already!

    I love having our Thanksgiving Day on the 2nd Monday of October. The leaves are colorful, there's a nip in the air, and usually it's the end of harvest.

    I think the difference is that up here, our Thanksgiving theme is more on the harvest and that God has blessed us with food for the winter, and that brings in the family, shelter, and everything else we are thankful for wherever we live. And then we try to bring everyone home for Christmas.

    From my perspective watching the Facebook comments, Thanksgiving movies, etc, it seems that the theme of American Thanksgiving is being thankful for family and having them home for Thanksgiving Day as a priority over having them home for Christmas.


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