Virginians, not Pilgrims, held first Thanksgiving

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Illustration of Berkeley Hundred from "Harper's Encyclopedia of United States History Volume 10" edited by Benson John Lossing and published in 1912.
Illustration of Berkeley Hundred from “Harper’s Encyclopedia of United States History Volume 10” edited by Benson John Lossing and published in 1912.

On Thursday, in the tradition of the Pilgrims, Americans will bow their heads and give thanks before feasting on turkey, stuffing, and cranberries.

However, it may be possible that the first official English Thanksgiving in the New World took place not in Plymouth, Massachusetts but in Hampton Roads.

According to Graham Woodlief, president of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival, a ship from England named the “Good Ship Margaret” dropped anchor at the future site of the Berkeley Plantation — upriver from Jamestown — on Dec. 4, 1619. The ship carried 35 settlers employed by the Berkeley Company, which had received an 8,000-acre grant from King James earlier that year.

“Before they left they had been given a list of 10 instructions [from the company],” said Woodlief, who is a direct descendant of Captain John Woodlief, commander of the Margaret and 35 settlers onboard. “The very first thing was to give thanks for their safe voyage to almighty God, perpetually and annually. Once they landed they kneeled and gave thanks for their safe voyage. That was the first English Thanksgiving.”

The giving of thanks at Berkeley Hundred was vastly different than the one made famous at Plymouth, and predated the arrival of the pilgrims by over a year. Woodlief said that the first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Hundred was likely a short prayer ceremony after which the settlers began building the colony, including houses, palisades, and critical buildings.

Woodlief said records of the Berkeley settlement are incomplete, but if the settlers followed the instructions from the Berkeley Company, they would have given thanks every Dec. 4.  With incomplete records, it’s impossible to say how subsequent Thanksgivings at Berkeley were conducted — or if they took place at all.

“They probably would be had a short religious observance and prepared some foods they were used to from home and foods they produced here,” said Historian Nancy Egloff from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Whether a feast occurred at the annual Thanksgiving is conjecture, but any feast would have featured locally raised corn and wild game such as turkeys and venison, said Egloff. 

“Hopefully their harvests were good, but their records don’t say,” said Egeloff.  “How much celebration they were able to do depended on their harvests.”

Why was the Thanksgiving at Berkeley largely forgotten by history and the feast at Plymouth now serves as the basis for the holiday?

For one, the Berkeley plantation was destroyed in 1622 — just three years after its founding — by a Native American attack, according to Woodlief.

“To be quite honest, the New England states just had many more Thanksgivings,” said Woodlief.  “I think they had a better public relations team.”

The history of the Berkeley Hundred Thanksgiving was lost until the 19th century, when Dr. Lyon Tyler — son of President John Tyler — came across them in the New York Public Library, according to Woodlief.

Tyler later published his findings in the Richmond News Leader in 1931.

Egeloff said that in the years surrounding the Civil War, northern artists promoted the Massachusetts Thanksgiving rather than the one that took place in Berkeley Hundred.

“It’s really the true first Thanksgiving and we owe it to history to remind people of that,” said Woodlief.  “People like to believe the Pilgrims had the first Thanksgiving and that’s simply not the case.”