The real first Thanksgiving

A depiction of the real first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Hundred on the James River. Photo courtesy Berkeley Plantation

Plymouth has been stealing our thunder far too long – 394 years to be exact.

It’s time to put away the pilgrim hats and forget about the Mayflower. The real first Thanksgiving happened right here in Virginia, nearly two years before the historic feast that gets all the credit for our modern-day holiday.

It happened on Dec. 4, 1619 at the Berkeley Hundred in Charles City County along the James River – and it’s still celebrated every year with a “First Thanksgiving” festival at the plantation.

It was that day that 38 settlers, funded by the Virginia Company of London and led by Captain John Woodlief, arrived at Berkeley and proclaimed: “We ordaine that the day of our ship’s arrival at the place assigned for plantation, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

They even documented it in writing for the sake of history.

But through the centuries, for reasons unknown, it’s the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock who get all glory for the Thanksgiving holiday, even though their feast wasn’t until sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 8, 1621.

Maybe it was those fashionable black pilgrim hats?


(2) comments

Paul Miller

We should attempt to retain real history as much as possible, and that includes this thanksgiving in Berkeley. However, we should also strive to retain historical context. The Berkeley event was giving thanks for safe arrival and the Plymouth event was more along the lines of giving thanks for a harvest. It seems like the modern holiday is more oriented toward harvest appreciation, so it's not incorrect we tie that to Plymouth.

In a Catholic sense, "Eucharist" is from and old Greek word for thanksgiving, and the sacrament is offered to give thanks for the sacrifice of Jesus, in the way prescribed by Jesus at the Last Supper ( this in memory of Me). Though there may have been an earlier Mass in America, the first recorded Mass was offered in 1633 on Saint Clement's Island, MD. However, the national holiday is more geared toward consuming turkey and root vegetables than Communion, so again, it's good to remember what happened on Saint Clement's Island but probably not to try to confuse that with our national holiday.


The events surrounding the Plymouth Thanksgiving were much different and much more consequential than Berkeley for a number of reasons. There really is little comparison.

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