The First Thanksgiving in America

It took place near Williamsburg, Va., not Plymouth, Mass. — and didn’t involve food!

Foods and Feasts of Colonial Virginia

The first Thanksgiving isn't what you think.

No grand feast. No friendly Native Americans. And no turkey.

Just settlers gathering to pray 75 days after landing in a dangerous place following a rough and stormy trans-Atlantic trip.

That first Thanksgiving took place at today's Berkeley Plantation on the banks of Virginia's James River after 38 British settlers landed on Dec. 4, 1619, two years before the more famous festivities in Plymouth, Mass. They celebrated "a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God," reading from the Book of Common Prayer. There was no grand meal. In fact, they likely fasted, a common practice during religious days in those times.

"Initially, a day of thanksgiving was something done by the church," says Frank Clark, who supervises Historic Foodways, a Colonial Williamsburg department. "It was a religious thing. They would spend the day fasting and praying. There really is not a meal associated with it."

They were following orders of the London-based Berkeley Company, which purchased 8,000 acres between what is now Williamsburg and Richmond to build a community of farms, storehouses, and homes. The company declared their arrival day must be yearly and perpetually kept holy. They followed those orders for two years until the native Powhatans attacked Berkeley on March 22, 1622, killing 347 people in several settlements.

Berkeley was then abandoned. Thanksgiving was not celebrated there again until 1956, almost a century after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a holiday during the Civil War.

Thanksgiving Events

Today, you can take part in Berkeley Plantation's Thanksgiving Festival, which celebrates that first day of thanks. On Nov. 6 from noon to 4:00 p.m., interpreters stroll the grounds. Vendors offer food and crafts. And a host of other activities includes a corn maze, tribal dancers, musicians, magicians, a parade, and doll making. At 3 p.m., interpreters playing Capt. John Woodlief and his men re-enact the landing of the 35-foot ship Margaret, which carried those 38 settlers to these shores. The entertainment ends with the Chickahominy Tribal Dancers inviting visitors to join them in the Friendship Dance. 

You can learn more about how the earliest settlers lived by visiting Historic Jamestowne, the original site of the first permanent English settlement in America, where you can tour the site with a costumed living history character, visit the archaeological museum, and explore the natural environment. Jamestown Settlement, meanwhile, is a living history museum that re-creates life in the Jamestown colony. It hosts the Foods and Feasts of Colonial Virginia event from Nov. 24 to 26, which shows how the colonists and Indians gathered and prepared food.

What the Settlers Ate

What would the settlers at Berkeley have eaten at the time of their landing? 

Diaries and other documents from the expedition survive. According to them, the ship's provisions were: 8,000 biscuits, bread, 160 pounds of butter, 50 pounds of suet, oatmeal, 127 pounds of bacon, horsemeat, two lots of cheese, five ropes of onions, 33 pounds of soap, pepper, salt, ginger, a barrel of vinegar, 11 gallons of oil, 20 bushels of wheat, 60 bushels of peas, 1,386 gallons of beer, 1,512 gallons of cider, 11 gallons of wine, and 15 gallons of “aqua vitae.”

Their meal after the fast almost certainly came from what was left of those provisions. No turkey. No corn. No potatoes. No pumpkin pie (or pumpkin pie spice anything).

Researchers and historians have been able to reconstruct what settlers down the river at Jamestown ate after their arrival. It's the original farm-to-table and bay-to-table menu.

Corn was plentiful, but not considered the favored grain. Wheat was, Clark says. They benefited from three growing seasons instead of one back home in England.

The Chesapeake Bay offered a bounty of crab, oysters, and huge sturgeon as well as croaker, spot, and flounder, Clark says. Colonists raised cattle, sheep, and pigs. Early on, Virginia hams acquired a reputation because pigs were allowed to wander, foraging from the forest, which created more flavorful meat. Beef was the most eaten meat, followed by pork, lamb, mutton, and fish.

They grew beans, peas, lettuce, cabbage, collards, and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. Currants brought with them did not do well, but peaches thrived. Beer and cider were cheap, popular drinks. Growing grapes was the law of the land, but Clark says the European vines they brought with them quickly fell victim to diseases in American soil. They drank wine, but it wasn't from locally grown grapes. 

In the early years at Jamestown, more than half the meat came from wild animals, according to Joanne Bowen, who is curator of zooarchaeology at Colonial Williamsburg. Bowen and her team study the bones and other waste at historical sites to gain insight into what people ate. After about 15 years, the Jamestown diet shifted with 60 to 70 percent of meat from domesticated animals. They were free range before free range was cool. There were no fences, Bowen notes. Animals formed herds in a forested area with clearings. "In a sense," she adds, "they were colonizers in their own right."

Colonists, Clark says, generally made one meal called dinner to eat midday at 2 p.m., consisting of salted pork, beef, a bunch of vegetables and potatoes, barley, and other fillers. Then they “supped” from leftovers later that evening and for breakfast the next day.

Clark says that eating has in some ways returned to those days of thanksgiving four centuries ago. 

"The funny thing to me is the huge trend now in upscale restaurants is local, native, in-season dishes," he says. "This is how everybody ate every single day 200 years ago. It's come around in a giant circle."

Local Thanksgiving Menus

This Thanksgiving, two restaurants are prime examples of that farm- and sea-to-table tradition. Their special Thanksgiving menus are inspired by local foods from the same land and waterways first cultivated by the colonists. Kingmill Resort, a condo resort on the James River, is offering a special menu at Eagles (in addition to turkey and all the fixings) that includes wild greens with sorrel, cress and Angelica served in a duck consommé; James River oysters in natural liquor and pickled rhubarb; Boyle pheasant with pudding; leg of venison; and poached rockfish. (Eagles restaurant is open only to resort guests.)

At Café Provençal at The Williamsburg Winery, a special Thanksgiving menu starts with butternut squash bisque with savory granola and sage marshmallow; roast of venison larded with Autumn Olive Farm pork; or a roasted game bird with truffle stuffing and a choice of sauces including pomegranate cranberry pecan or roasted chicken veloute. Sides range from potatoes and Brussels sprout petals to baked oysters, duck bacon, absinthe green beans and leek and mushroom soubise.

For more information on visiting Greater Williamsburg for Thanksgiving, check out Thanksgiving meals, lodging, and all our fun things to do