Who Really Held the First Thanksgiving in the United States?

The important thing about the holiday is not who started the tradition but the humble and grateful spirit the tradition instills.


Thanksgiving is a great American tradition. As is disputing the holiday's origins.

National mythos portrays the first Thanksgiving as taking place in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in celebration of a bountiful harvest. History.com buys into the myth when it refers to "the original 1621 harvest meal"—although it also acknowledges that "for some scholars, the jury is still out on whether the feast at Plymouth really constituted the first Thanksgiving in the United States."

As a possible contender for the first Thanksgiving on the U.S. mainland, the website cites a 1565 meal of thanks hosted by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilé in Florida. It likewise notes an event that took place "on December 4, 1619, when 38 British settlers reached a site known as Berkeley Hundred on the banks of Virginia's James River" and "read a proclamation designating the date as 'a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.' "

The latter event has given rise to a long-running complaint that Virginia does not get the credit it deserves for kicking off the national holiday. Two years ago retired newspaper executive Graham Woodlief related the origin story (which included an ancestor of his) in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

"It all began in the spring of 1618 after four gentlemen had been given a grant, by England's King James I, of 8,000 acres of beautiful land in Virginia on the James River. The four gentlemen were John Throckmorton, George Thorpe, John Smythe, and Richard Berkeley. They formed the Berkeley Company and needed someone to lead the expedition to the New World.

"The group chose John Woodlief (and) made him a captain and the first governor of the new colony of Berkeley Hundred. Woodlief prepared for the trip and leased the good ship Margaret…

"On Dec. 4, 1619, the ship arrived at its destination, Berkeley Hundred, and the men rowed ashore. Clifford Dowdey wrote in his book 'The Great Plantation': 'The men placed their personal luggage on the hard ground, gazed at the woods enclosing them and listened in complete silence. Then at a command from Captain Woodlief, the men kneeled and said a prayer of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for their safe voyage.'

"They did this in accordance with the proclamation they received from the Berkeley Company in England, instructing them, upon arrival, to give thanks and to do so annually and perpetually. The first English Thanksgiving in America had just occurred."

Other colonists held feasts of thanksgiving from time to time, Woodlief notes, "but they were spontaneous and one-time events." Thanksgiving at Berkeley took place every year—until 1622, that is, when the Powhatan Indians attacked the settlement and killed 347 of its inhabitants.

This put a bit of a damper on things, and the settlement was abandoned. "For three centuries," Washingtonian magazine notes, "Virginia's first Thanksgiving was lost to history." That allowed the Johnny-come-lately crowd up in Plymouth to get their hooks into the national psyche and convince Americans they actually came up with the idea.

Not everyone fell for it, though. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued a Thanksgiving proclamation that began, "Over three centuries ago in Plymouth, on Massachusetts Bay, the Pilgrims established the custom of gathering together each year to express their gratitude to God."

Kennedy was a Yankee, and didn't know any better. But John Wicker Jr., a former state legislator from Richmond, did—and he took umbrage. He fired off a telegram (like a tweet, only slower) to the White House expressing said umbrage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote back confessing error: "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."

Kennedy's next Thanksgiving proclamation not only mentioned Virginia, but listed it first.

Other presidents, unfortunately, have not been so punctilious. In their own proclamations Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all slighted Virginia at one time or another. This year Donald Trump will have his first chance to get it right.

Why all the fuss? The important thing about Thanksgiving, after all, is not who started the tradition but the humble and grateful spirit the tradition instills.

Or at least that is what the skunkwaffles up in Massachusetts would like you to believe. Here in the Capital of the Confederacy, with its stately avenue full of second-place trophies, some people still care very much about who came in first. And with regard to Thanksgiving, we all know the real answer, even if some people will not admit it: Pedro Menéndez de Avilé of Florida.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. …the website cites a 1565 meal of thanks hosted by Spanish explorer Pedro Men?ndez de Avil? in Florida.

    Of course someone is going to try to push the agenda that immigrants started the first Thanksgiving when we all know it was RED BLOODED AMERICANS.

    1. Because immigrants don’t have red blood. I think it’s blue.

      1. I like to imagine it’s green, like Vulcans.

        1. You’re all missing the point.

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    2. Wouldn’t it be whoever held it in 1776, that being when the United States of America came into being?

  2. To be fair, the myth of Thanksgiving would be more applicable to the 13 colonies and those early Americans setting a tradition. Florida had nothing to do with the founding of the USA.

    We had a fairly similar discussion about black slaves being in America before the English. America started as the 13 colonies, not including Florida.

    1. I wonder if the Spaniards would be willing taking Florida back if we offered?

      1. Maybe, but no take backs once the deal is done. #Catalonia

  3. This would also mark the first but not the last time that someone named Men?ndez came in first, hey-o!

  4. The first Thanksgiving being held in Florida fits nicely with my opinion of both Thanksgiving and Florida.

    1. You are gonna get drunk in Florida and get into a pointless fight down there?

      1. “What do you mean pointless, the guy said he had more tattoos than I did!”

        1. Well, how many tattoos does Hugh have, besides that trampstamp of Leonard Peikoff and David Kelley debating the morality of tolerating deviations from official Objectivist positions?

          1. I have one of Ayn Rand on my right bicep and one of Nathaniel Brandon on my forearm, so they kiss when I do curls. Frank O’Conner is on my right shoulder watching them.

            1. You are the best, Hugh.

  5. “Kennedy’s next Thanksgiving proclamation not only mentioned Virginia, but listed it first.

    “Other presidents, unfortunately, have not been so punctilious.”

    Other Presidents weren’t trying to placate Jim Crow Southern Democrats at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

    1. And other Presidents didn’t have to compensate for being from Massachusetts.

  6. The first English Thanksgiving in America had just occurred.

    “Prayers”? That’s it?!

    Turkeys and cranberries or GTFO.

    1. Hey, is Trump gonna pardon a turkey? What else is he gonna do?

      1. Oh great, I can’t wait for PETA to declare that Thanksgiving is now more holocausty than ever.

        1. Alaska bumper sticker:

          PETA, People Eating Tasty Animals

      2. He already did.

        Personally, I think a much better tradition would be if the president slaughtered a turkey on live TV every year.

        1. Personally, I think a much better tradition would be if a president was slaughtered a turkey on live TV every year.

          Yes. Yes, I think I like that idea a bit more.

      3. You know, that by pardoning the turkey (but just the white meat parts), he is implying that all other animals are ok to torture to death. /prog

      4. Invite Ron Swanson?

  7. kennedy was Irish, not a yankee. You are not from New England obviously.

    1. Lace-curtain Irish. Surrounded by Yankees.

    2. Martin van Buren, however, was a real Janke.

  8. “Thanksgiving at Berkeley took place every year?until 1622, that is, when the Powhatan Indians attacked the settlement and killed 347 of its inhabitants.

    “This put a bit of a damper on things, and the settlement was abandoned.”

    I’m seeing what might be considered a key factor in the Virginia thanksgiving tradition not getting off the ground.

    1. Thanksgiving at Berkeley took place every year?until 1622, that is, when the Powhatan Indians attacked the settlement and killed 347 of its inhabitants.

      This is the commonly accepted date of the first Antifa uprising.

      1. And Berkeley is still pissed about Thanksgiving.

  9. I suspect that there were Thanksgiving ceremonies in America by the various pre-European tribes, if you want to get technical.

    Though I don’t know if any of the North American tribes did thanksgiving as cool as the Aztecs, those guys really put their hearts in it.

    1. “Though I don’t know if any of the North American tribes did thanksgiving as cool as the Aztecs, those guys really put their hearts in it.”

      Actually they put other people’s hearts in it.

      1. And here I thought some German, mooching off a friend in London, had invented the basis of socialism …

      2. “Actually they put other people’s hearts in it.”

        OK, I should gone with “it took a lot of heart.”

  10. No Thanksgivings count until those after Lincoln created the United States of America in 1865 by forbidding secession.

    1. Nah, nothing counts until FDR when he linked Thanksgiving to the kick-off of insane shopping season.

      I wonder what Black Friday was like in Plymouth…

  11. This stuff can read like some musicologist telling me what punk rock really meant to me and why. I just went to the shows while it was happening and lived the life. How would I know why I did what I did and what it meant unless some musicologist were here to explain it to me?

    This happens with libertarianism a lot, too. I’ve been a libertarian since long before the internet, but what do I know about libertarians, what they believe, and why? No, for me to understand that, we need someone to write about me on the internet, mention me on TV. If the experts weren’t there to tell me what I believe and why, how would I know?

    What Thanksgiving means to me and why isn’t about the Spanish in Florida. Christmas trees are a big phallic symbol to me, too, I suppose, because my ancestors saw them as supernaturally imbued with life because the evergreens stayed alive in the winter when everything else seemed to die? Actually, Christmas trees aren’t about paganism to me.

    Thanksgiving is about being thankful for what I have no matter my present circumstances–even if all I have is friends and family. It’s “Thou shalt not covet” in action. There’s something distinctively American about that to me, and there’s something especially un-American about being an ingrate. People who aren’t thankful for what they have because they don’t have what belongs to others, too, are suffering from a moral defect.

    1. Nicely done, Ken.

    2. Maybe, but at its core Thanksgiving, and any other holiday (holy day), is about a public celebration and at least a “reminder” to adhere to the group mores and conventions.

      Chances are, if you need a reminder to spend one day being grateful, you don’t have any ethics worth considering.

  12. Trying to track down ‘the first Thanksgiving’ is a fools errand since harvest-time festivals have been the norm for humanity for at least 2000-3000 years (I.E. prehistoric, really). So to find the first ‘Thanksgiving’ in the America’s you’d probably need to figure out when, in prehistory, the first so-called ‘Native Americans’ had their first harvest.

    If you’re talking about the American holiday specifically, well, it was probably one of those lost colonies that would be the technical first Thanksgiving. Speaking very specifically, it would have been November 26, 1863. Obviously. And it was a celebration created to ‘give thanks’ that the North won the Civil War, more or less. Whoops!

  13. The New England crowd also likes to claim Plymouth was the first English colony in America when it was actually Jamestown.

    1. I thought it was Roanoke. Although I guess Jamestown was the first one to stick and not have the colonists either die from their own incompetence, disappear without a trace, or get slaughtered by natives.

    2. “The New England crowd also likes to claim Plymouth was the first English colony in America when it was actually Jamestown.”

      Newfoundland’s claim to the first English colony, (late 1500s) predates both.

  14. Didn’t Erick’s kid Leaf eat something after he landed?

    1. Probably guzzled a gallon or so of mead.

  15. Just remember that it’s a great example of how immigration works out great for those immigrating, but not so much for the original inhabitants of the place.

  16. I learned a couple yrs. ago that Thanksgiving Day used to be the traditional end of baseball season. Also that something a little like baseball?stoolball?was likely played at the Pilgrims’ 1st Thanksgiving, which went on for 4 days.

  17. Many schoolchildren in the USA have been told the myth of how the Indians saved the Pilgrims from starvation. What they neglect to mention is that what saved them, and several other early colonist villages, was abandoning their communal/collectivist failure in favor of a capitalist method of running things.

    We know that because they wrote about it in their journals. When nobody gains anything more by working harder, and don’t get any less for working less, lots of people will screw off and do as little as they can, or nothing.

    That’s the built in doom of ALL ‘share and share alike’ attempts at organizing a human society. Yet idiots keep thinking “it wasn’t done *right*” instead of just understanding there is no ‘right’ way to do it, because it doesn’t work.

    1. Galane: I give thanks (Thanksgiving?) for your making the only comment that matters. It was all documented by Gov. Bradford. After I learned this it became my second favorite holiday after the day the colonists went from subjects to sovereigns, from servants of the empire to self-governors.

      The significance of both holidays is forgotten, thanks to those powers that be who commission historians to turn the truth into propaganda. (They don’t lie, they “spin the truth”.) Those who can tell us (political zombies) what to think about the past can tell us what to think about the present and what we will think about the future, until reality spanks us.
      Why is it so unusual to read about or see a documentary on the ex-Nazi German’s state of mind after defeat? What did they think of Hitler? What did they think of themselves? Were they still true believers in their superiority? Or did they wake up and realize they made a fatal mistake? Did they take personal responsibility? Or did they still think of themselves as “the German people” and not an individual? I wonder. Why has this question not been addressed? I certainly didn’t believe the Nuremberg Trials ended it. Those punished were merely symbols of the guilt of the Nazi citizen. It was impossible to punish the millions, let alone go into their minds the find who was who. Nor was it necessary once the danger they presented was passed. But shouldn’t we have tried to learn how to avoid it happening again? And now “we are them”.

  18. See? The Indians started the whole thing!

    1. No, it was a whitefella, Abraham Lincoln.

  19. The festival of Thanksgiving is not just about the food, but most amazing day for many people to focus on what they are thankful for and this produce so many blessings, including patience for the holiday event.images of thanksgiving quotes 2018

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