Was the First Thanksgiving Really Celebrated by the Pilgrims?3 min read

If you read your history book as a kid, you would have learned that the First Thanksgiving was celebrated in Plymouth by a band of 53 thankful Pilgrims and 90 Indians. Is that really true?

Thirty-eight men, including Captain Woodlief had sailed to the mouth of the James River from England on a perilous voyage that took nearly 3 months. After arriving in the New World, these adventurous men were profoundly thankful to have arrived safely. As the 38 men knelt on the shores of Virginia, Captain Woodlief prayed,

“Wee ordaine that this day of our ships 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 was the First Thanksgiving, which was celebrated on December 4th, 1619 at the Berkeley Hundred Plantation near current-day Charles City, Virginia. Unlike our modern celebration or the Pilgrim’s 3-day celebration, this event was not a feast of food. Rather, it was strictly a religious celebration and a solemn day of prayer. This celebration was 1 year and 17 days before the Pilgrims even sailed to America and nearly 2 years before their famous 3-day Thanksgiving feast.


Historical Marker at Berkeley

One year later, Berkeley Plantation celebrated their second Thanksgiving. (Our Pilgrims were still in England coordinating the journey of their ships.) However, there wasn’t another Thanksgiving celebration at Berkeley Hundred Plantation until 1958. Early on the morning of March 22, 1622, the Indians came into the settlement on seemingly friendly terms. The colonists were off guard due to past friendly relationships and drop-in visits. However, today the Indians seized all types of weapons and simultaneously attacked, killing many and effectively closing the plantation.

Later it was learned that many other attacks were executed throughout Virginia. The Indians had also recruited Indian boys* at other plantations to revolt and join the massacre. Nearly 350 settlers were slaughtered that early March morning throughout Virginia, but Jamestown was spared. One Christian Indian boy, Chanco, warned his master of the evil plan on the eve of March 21st, thus allowing word to spread throughout Jamestown of the pending attack. This deadly massacre effectively closed Berkeley Plantation.

The plantation is birthplace to William Henry Harrison, 9th U.S. President and Benjamin Harrison V, Signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1928, Malcolm and Grace Jamieson bought Berkeley Plantation. In 1958, 338 years after the First Thanksgiving, Virginia Senator John Wicker brought the First Thanksgiving to light. Today, a celebration is held each year on the first Sunday in November. While today’s Thanksgiving celebration remembers and honors its history, it is much different than it was in 1619.

(Note: Colonial dancing, as dances from this era are referred to as, is still very much alive in certain circles of Virginia. The dancing you see in this video at 14:00 is in slow speed, but it’s a lot of fun – and good exercise, too!)


Image Credit: Berkeley Hundred Plantation

As your family celebrates Thanksgiving this year complete with family, friends, the turkey, stuffing and all the fixings, remember it matters not so much as to where the First Thanksgiving was, but Who the Virginian settlers thanked. Our thankfulness today should be no different than that of the settlers at Berkeley Hundred Plantation or the Pilgrims at Plymouth.

*Many boys from the Powhatan tribe had been sent to live with the English and learn their ways. It would have resembled an apprenticeship.




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Carrie is a country girl living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. When not working for her family's internet marketing firm, RYP Marketing, you can find Carrie reading, hiking, biking, shooting at the range or catching up on the latest news. You can contact Carrie via email at carrie@rypmarketing.com.

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