Truths About the First Thanksgiving

Posted on Nov 22, 2011

History is not the past. History is the story we tell about the past.

History changes. The past does not.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, as time goes on we (hopefully) witness “the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths [are] disclosed.”

There is perhaps no better time each year to appreciate this fact than Thanksgiving. A time to give thanks, of course— as we should each and every day; but it’s also a propitious time to explode some of the Great Myths, to better understand the past, to tell a new and more enlightened story.

No one man has done more to bring us “new discoveries” about the American past and the Thanksgiving Myth than my friend, anthropologist and historical archaeologist Jim Deetz (1930-2000). Jim took us so far beyond the stories we got as children. We will always be in debt to his great gift: a keener appreciation of who the Plymouth pilgrims really were and what life for them was really like. THE book to read is The Times of their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony.

Jim taught us a new and more mature history. He showed us that the Plymouth Thanksgiving of 1621 was likely a non-religious, secular harvest festival. The Pilgrims (and there were about 150 of them at the event) were simply marking an old English custom: the “harvest home.” It was a celebratory meal that on that day in 1621 more than likely included a lot more fish, lobster, geese, and beer (“strong water” as they called it), than it did turkey and stuffing.

It’s interesting to note as well that the only eye-witness account of that “First Thanksgiving” does not even include the word thanksgiving nor even the phrase giving thanks— or, in fact, any mention at all of being thankful.

Truth is, the FIRST Thanksgiving in English America (it’s even older in French Canada) was held in the colony of Virginia on December 4, 1619 at Berkeley Hundred (later Berkeley Plantation), on the James River near present-day Richmond— a full year and 17 days before the Pilgrims even landed at Plymouth.

Like Jamestown before it in 1607, Berkeley was founded as a commercial venture to encourage the immigration of English colonists, as the Brits desperately played catch up in a race of empires with the Spanish, Portuguese and French to control “third-world” resources in the Americas.

Thirty-eight settlers landed at Berkeley on December 4, 1619, marking their safe arrival with a day of “thanksgiving.”

Not only did they call it Thanksgiving, but they even declared it an annual holiday: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

So this year, somewhere between the turkey and the football (and for me at least, the many hours of poker)— let us take a moment to remember where this wonderful tradition actually began in the United States.

Not at Plymouth.

But here, in Virginia.

Happy Thanksgiving.