What Really Happened At The First Thanksgiving?

By Matt Blitz |

Jamestown, up the river from the home of the first Thanksgiving MPI

Let's get this out of the way: The first Thanksgiving did not take place at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. It did not happen in 1621, it didn't involve Pilgrims and there probably weren't even any Native Americans around. Perhaps even more shocking, there was no turkey. It doesn't matter what your third-grade teacher said while making hand turkeys. It's all wrong.

The truth is that the first Thanksgiving took place in Virginia and it took place 400 days before the Mayflower's supposed initial feast. And with nary a gobbler in sight, the boat full of English mercenaries likely ate wild hog, raw oysters and old ship rations.

In September 1619, the Margaret left England for the New World with about 40 people aboard the 35-foot-long ship. Their mission was simple: To settle 8,000 acres of land along the James River in the name of the London-based Berkeley Company. Essentially, they were contracted sharecroppers who were given land and supplies in exchange for the right to their crops and profit. Leading this group of business-minded explorers was Captain John Woodlief, a veteran seafarer and a survivor of the infamous Jamestown "Starving Time."

After three months at sea, a violent storm blew the Margaret off course and the ship crashed upon the shores of Virginia's James River (a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay). They named their landing spot after the company that had sent them (Berkeley Hundred) and proceeded to do exactly what their employer had told them to do - they prayed. According to written orders given to Woodlief by the company, the settlers were told that their day of arrival should "be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God." The orders said nothing about a gut-expanding meal.

Historians generally agree they probably ate something shortly after they arrived, although a common practice to mark a religious occasion at the time was too fast. Assuming they did eat, there's no written record of exactly what that was. Due to the harsh approaching winter, there just wasn't much readily available in Virginia in December. Roasted and/or raw oysters were likely on their Thanksgiving table due to their abundance in the James River. Settlers also likely ate wild hogs as they were plentiful too despite being dangerous and hard to catch (they still cause problems in the area today). Besides the possible local provisions, the settlers still had their old ship rations, likley made primarily of stale biscuits and salted meat. More items not on the menu though: cranberries (no cranberry bogs nearby), stuffing (grains weren't being cultivated in the New World yet) and turkey (hard to find near water). In fact, even at the Plymouth Thanksgiving a year later, a turkey was likely not on the festive table. According to NPR, venison and migrating waterfowl like ducks and geese were the more likely offerings.

Only two years after their original Thanksgiving prayers upon the shores of the James, the native Powhatans wiped out the settlement because the invading Europeans were threatening their land. Few of the initial settlers survived, although Woodlief did. Due to this short lifespan, the first Thanksgiving at Virginia's Berkeley Hundred was nearly forgotten by history.

In 1789, George Washington asked the nation for a "day of public thanksgiving and prayer," but it was Lincoln who made it a national holiday in 1863. FDR officially made Thanksgiving the fourth Thursday in November. And throughout those centuries, Plymouth was regarded as the birthplace of Thanksgiving. That all changed in 1931 when the Nibley Papers were discovered in the New York State Library. The papers give a detailed account of the Berekely settlement, including the passage about the settlers having a day of thanksgiving. For many Virginians, this was proof that history had it all wrong.

Throughout the 1960s, Virginia state Senator John J. Wicker Jr. made it his personal crusade to rewrite history and tell the world about Virginia's claim to the first Thanksgiving. He paid a visit to Massachusetts governor John A. Volpe to plead his state's case. He went on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in costume in hopes laughs would convince America. Wicker even wrote the White House an angry letter when President Kennedy left out Virginia in his annual Thanksgiving Proclamation. To his amazement, Wicker got a reply from Kennedy's speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger Jr., which read "The President has asked me to reply to your telegram... You are quite right and I can only plead an unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff... I can assure you the error will not be repeated in the future." The next year, Massachusetts' native son John F. Kennedy acknowledged Virginia's claim, including the state in his address. 43 years later, President George W. Bush paid a visit to the Berkeley site and spoke about Virginia's rightful claim. He ended his statements by saying, "As you can imagine, this version of events is not very popular up north."

Since 1953, the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival has been held to commemorate this lost piece of history. As one would expect, it isn't turkey that's served as part of the festive meal. It's Virginia ham.

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