Hold Onto Your Buckles, Petticoats and Pilgrim Hats

400 Years Ago The First Thanksgiving In America Was In Virginia, And They Are Still At It

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. –August 14 2019 – Those Pilgrims must have had some good PR people. They made the ultimate “colonial brand declaration” with the whole First Thanksgiving thing, and it stuck. 

The real story on The first documented Thanksgiving in what is now the United States took place on Dec. 4, 1619, in what is now Greater Williamsburg, Virginia, at a place called Berkeley Plantation on the banks of the James River (it’s still there). Thirty-eight British settlers celebrated "a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God," reading from the Book of Common Prayer. The Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving took place in 1621.   The Virginians were first by a good two years.

Beer Changes the Course of History

What’s ironic is that the Pilgrims were on their way to Virginia (maybe “Virginia was for Lovers” even back then?) but ran out of beer – yes, they ran out of beer – and took a hard turn to starboard and cut the voyage short by landing in Massachusetts.  That little fact was left of out the history books in grade school.

There was no grand meal at the first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation. In fact, the Virginian settlers likely fasted – a common practice during religious days in those times.  Then they ate.  And we know what they ate.

They were grateful for just being alive after 75 days on-shore in a new world and crossing the rather dangerous Atlantic Ocean in a tiny boat. And they did this “Thanksgiving” under strict orders from 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.

What Did They Eat After Fasting… Let’s Face it…They Would Be Hungry?

It was a combination of leftover provisions they brought from the ship (the log still exists) and what they could hunt and gather from the waterways and land. There was no turkey. No corn. No potatoes. No pumpkin pie (or pumpkin pie spice anything).

The Chesapeake Bay offered a bounty of crab, oysters and huge sturgeon, as well as croaker, spot, and flounder. 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.

Diaries and other documents from the Berkeley expedition survive and the ship's provisions included 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.”

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. They drank wine, but it wasn't from locally grown grapes. 

Most meat came from wild animals. Most domesticated animals roamed free – there were no fences.

What’s amazing is that some of the finest restaurants in Williamsburg and the surrounding are still serving up some of same regional farm to table and sea to table foods that existed at the first Thanksgiving dinner using local seafood, meats, foul and crops, much of it coming from the exact same waterways and even gardens that fed the first Colonists almost 400 years ago.

It was Abraham Lincoln who declared Thanksgiving (a harvest festival observed all around the young country in one way or another) a holiday during the Civil War.    The holiday was annually proclaimed by every president thereafter, and the date chosen was usually the last Thursday in November. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, attempted to extend the Christmas shopping season, which generally begins with the Thanksgiving holiday, and to boost the economy by moving the date back a week, to the third week in November.   Not all the states agreed, and a joint resolution of Congress in 1941 led to Roosevelt issuing a proclamation in 1942 designating the fourth Thursday in November (which is not always the last Thursday) as Thanksgiving Day.

Today, you can take part in Berkeley Plantation's annual Thanksgiving Festival, which celebrates that first day of thanks. On November 3, from 11:00am to 4:00 p.m., there will be activities for the entire family including a parade, first person re-enactors, musicians, magicians and a puppet performance of the first Thanksgiving.  The Chickahominy Tribal Dancers will perform as well as The Itinerant Band and Colonial Singers of Williamsburg.  Families can participate in Colonial period games, dancing, and crafts all while the seventeenth century sailing ship, the Godspeed, will be offshore. Vendors will showcase their food, arts, crafts and jewelry.

The program and re-enactment of the 1619 landing, moderated by Tim Timberlake, will include guest speakers Charles Berkeley of Berkeley Castle in England and former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles. Brock’s BBQ will continue the tradition of offering Thanksgiving Dinner in a Glass, along with smoked turkey legs, Brunswick stew, BBQ and Virginia ham biscuits. Concession stands with hot dogs, kettle korn, and funnel cakes are also available throughout the day.

Mansion tours will be conducted from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Festival entertainment and activities are from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.  The program and re-enactment begin at 3:00 p.m. Following the program, the Chickahominy Tribal Dancers invite everyone to join them in the traditional Friendship Dance which concludes the day.


Media Contacts:

Kathie Gonzalez, [email protected] / 800-707-9190 ext. 817

Digital photos and video content available upon request.

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