Tuesday, November 18, 2014

America's True First Thanksgiving

If you Google “First Thanksgiving,” you’ll see websites about the Pilgrims and their first big feast with the Wampanoag Indians in 1621 in Plymouth, in what is now Massachusetts. Indeed, most of us learned about the brave Pilgrims in grade school, and their desire to thank God for His blessings in the New World. But the Pilgrims’ celebration was not the first Thanksgiving. In fact, even though they were deeply religious, their feast was more of a social occasion than a religious one, and it was not an annual event for a long time. Contrary to popular belief, the first true Thanksgiving was observed in Virginia in 1619, over a year before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth.

In 1607, Jamestown had become the first permanent settlement in the colonies, but 80 percent of its unprepared and unskilled settlers had died from disease. Early in 1619, King James granted 8000 acres of land for settlement to the Virginia Company of London. In September of that year, 38 settlers left England aboard the ship Margaret, bound for an area up river from Jamestown. The Margaret’s captain, John Woodlief, was determined to not repeat the Jamestown tragedy. He chose 38 skilled workmen—journeymen, joiners, carpenters, and smiths—men ready to work hard in beginning a new settlement from scratch.
After a difficult Atlantic crossing, the ship reached Chesapeake Bay on November 28th. Entering the King James River, it sailed 20 miles upstream past Jamestown. The new settlement would be called Berkeley Hundred, named after the English Berkeley family and Berkeley Castle. Finally, on December 4th, 1619, the Margaret arrived at the site.

Captain Woodlief had been instructed by the Virginia Company to offer a prayer of thanksgiving upon reaching their destination. As the weary men knelt in the grass, he prayed, “We ordaine that this day of our ship’s arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon (meaning plantation) in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” This occurred one year and 17 days before the Pilgrims reached Massachusetts and two years before they celebrated their harvest with the Indians. The Pilgrims did not hold another feast on a regular basis until 1633, but the Berkeley Thanksgiving was an annual event. Instead of a focus on food or as a social gathering, the emphasis was on prayer alone.

Berkeley Plantation today

Nearly 400 years after the promise was first made by the settlers at Berkeley, a day of Thanksgiving is re-enacted every first Sunday in November. For more information, please visit http://www.berkeleyplantation.com


  1. I look forward to sharing this post with my children during our history lesson! Thank you.

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