In November every year, Americans think about roast turkey, pumpkin pie, Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. In the United States, Thanksgiving is celebrated every year on the fourth Thursday in November, ever since 1941 when officially established by Congress. Our November Thanksgiving combines an annual celebration of the harvest with a commemoration of the survival of the Pilgrims or Separatists in New England in 1621. Although Americans associate Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims, other areas of the country also have claims to sponsoring the “first” Thanksgiving in America.
Before the arrival of any Europeans in America, the Indigenous peoples held feasts and festivals at harvest time. In Virginia, Captain John Smith noted that the Powhatan people encountered by the first English settlers actually had two harvest seasons. One was a general harvest in the fall, but they added a fifth season to their year, placed between summer and the regular fall harvest, primarily to celebrate their corn harvest.
Scholars in Florida believe that the first thanksgiving conducted by Europeans in America probably took place there in 1513 when Juan Ponce de León landed on Florida’s coast and claimed the land for Spain, offering thanks for a safe passage. The Spanish in the 16th century customarily gave thanks when landing safely or discovering a new area. Probably the most specific account of a Spanish thanksgiving is that left by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in describing his founding of St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. The new settlers sang hymns of thanks, celebrated Mass, and fed themselves and the local Indians with foodstuffs from the ships. In 1598 another Spaniard, Juan de Oñate, led an expedition of about 500 colonists north from Mexico to colonize what is now New Mexico. When they got to the Rio Grande River, Oñate claimed the land north of the river for Spain and ordered settlers to gather for a feast of thanks for the foods they obtained in the region.
An early French claim dates to 1564, when persecuted French Huguenot settlers under René de Laudonniere arrived in today’s northern Florida to establish a colony from which to attack Spanish shipping. Setting foot on the site they chose, they gave “God thankes for our favourable and happie arrival. There wee sang a Psalme of thanksgiving unto God.” The following year, the Spanish at St. Augustine attacked and destroyed the French settlement.
Just as Spanish and French explorers and colonists celebrated safe arrivals in new lands, so too did the English. When the first settlers arrived in Virginia in April 1607 and raised a cross at Cape Henry claiming the land for England, perhaps they gave thanks.
It was not until 1619 that the first official English thanksgiving may have occurred in Virginia. In that year, Berkeley Hundred was settled, one of a number of plantations granted by the Virginia Company of London to stockholders in the Company. A group of Company investors who earned the right to claim land formed the Society of Berkeley Hundred – Richard Berkeley, Sir William Throckmorton, George Thorpe and John Smyth of Nibley. These subscribers received a contract with the Virginia Company in February 1619. The four Berkeley Hundred investors recruited about 35 men to send to Virginia as tenants and servants and selected Captain John Woodlief to be the commander. The site for the plantation was chosen by Governor Sir George Yeardley who was in Virginia. Prior to leaving England in September 1619, Captain Woodlief received “Ordinances, Direccons and Instructions” from the investors, which included these words: that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perputualy keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.
This instruction was a requirement that those who established and lived at Berkeley Hundred should annually give thanks. The group left Bristol, England, on the ship Margaret on September 16, 1619, and arrived at Kecoughtan (Old Point Comfort in today’s Hampton) in late November. On November 30, 1619, passenger Ferdinando Yates wrote: “in the evening god bethanked we came to an anker at kecketan [Kecoughtan] in a good harbore.” On December 4 the ship officially checked in at Jamestown, the colony’s capital, and then proceeded up the James River about 30 miles to settle the land selected by Yeardley, although actually belongng to the Indigenous people of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom. At this point the Berkeley Hundred leaders may have instituted the instruction to give thanks upon arrival “at the place assigned for plantacon,” although there are no records indicating whether or not it happened. If it did, it would have been solely a religious observance. After a long trip across the Atlantic, the settlers’ supplies were probably low. They arrived at a spot along the James where no English had yet settled, and had to begin building their plantation.
The Berkeley Hundred land grant totaled 8,000 acres, including 400 acres for planting crops and grazing cattle. In 1620, the Society of Berkeley Hundred sent more than 50 additional settlers, including at least eight women and four children. Berkeley Hundred probably prospered for a couple of years. However, in March 1622, the Powhatan Indians went to war against the growing number of English settlers in Virginia moving into Indigenous lands. At Berkeley Hundred, 11 settlers were killed and Company officials moved the survivors to safety at designated, strengthened plantations. Berkeley Hundred was not resettled for some time. There is no documentary evidence that the directive to give thanks “yearly and perputualy” on the day of the ship’s arrival was ever followed.
At Plymouth/Patuxet, traditionally thought of as the site of the first American Thanksgiving, settlers probably gave thanks on a variety of occasions. Plymouth’s famous “first Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621, after a brutal first year, but it seemed more like a secular festival, similar to the English Harvest Home. Edward Winslow described the event celebrating the settlers’ first year of survival:
Our harvest being gotten in, our Governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labours. . . . At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest of their greatest king, Massasoit with some 90 men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted.
Winslow made no mention of giving thanks or any religious observance, but of rejoicing, gathering fruits, entertaining Wampanoag Indians, feasting, exercising military arms. Except for the Wampanoag people present, all of these were elements very similar to those enjoyed at an English harvest festival. The English men and women who settled both Jamestown and New England were accustomed to celebrating the harvest in England in late summer and early fall after they gathered in their grains of wheat, barley, rye and oats. During Harvest Home, local revelers selected a harvest lord, and feasted, drank ale, played and sang harvest songs and danced. Given the religious nature of Plymouth colony, however, some form of religious worship probably did occur among the Pilgrim contingent of settlers in 1621.
Early settlers in all the New World colonies had different reasons and numerous occasions for giving thanks. Some were for safe passage to the new lands, others for survival in the new environment, while others were for good harvests. In Virginia, because of the lack of food in the first few years, settlers more likely offered thanks in gratitude for safe journeys and survival. No documentary evidence exists to prove that early settlers followed the Berkeley Hundred directive to give thanks annually on the day of the ship’s arrival, either upon actual arrival or in subsequent years. However, the directive did establish a precedent for the concept of an annual day set aside for giving thanks, an officially recurring commemoration (not a one-time event) such as Americans celebrate in the United States today.
Nancy D. Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Selected Sources for Further Reading
Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. New York: Modern Library, 1981.
Kingsbury, Susan M. Records of the Virginia Company of London, 4 volumes. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1906, 1933, 1935.
McIlwaine, H. R. Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1924.
Weber, David. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.