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20.01.01 America’s First Thanksgiving Day, Virginia Colony, 1619, commentary submitted in 2013 by member Richard Bender Abell.

The following is a brief essay submitted by member Richard Bender Abell of Alexandria, Virginia

We Virginians can rightly claim our forebears first celebrated and established the custom of celebrating Thanksgiving on these shores. Let’s remember and teach our children about the 1619 Thanksgiving celebration at Berkeley Hundred, Virginia Colony. It was the first Thanksgiving celebrated by the English colonists in our country, despite the many textbooks that give the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration at Plymouth, Massachusetts Colony that honor.  Also, Alexandria, Virginia’s own George Washington was the first President to set aside a special day for the nation to offer Thanksgiving to God.

On December 4, 1619, when the Margaret, sailing from Bristol, England, reached her destination 20 miles upstream from Jamestown at Berkeley Hundred, now Berkeley Plantation, Captain John Woodliffe opened the sealed orders given him in London. They directed that the first act of those 38 settlers and eight crewmen aboard should be to have a religious service of thanksgiving to God for their safe arrival, and the settlers and crew did so. Indians, curious about the newcomers and familiar with the settlers and religious services at Jamestown, probably watched. Furthermore, Woodliffe’s orders provided that the day of the ship’s arrival was to be “yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

In 1622, in a surprise attack, Indians massacred almost everyone at the Berkeley settlement. Thus the custom of thanksgiving was observed there for only a few years. After that tragedy the area was abandoned, and the Jamestown settlers did not feel like celebrating. After many years colonists returned to the site, and the Harrison family built a beautiful home there, Berkeley Plantation.  Benjamin Harrison, IV signed the Declaration of Independence. His grandson, William Henry Harrison, was elected President; two generations later Benjamin Harrison, his grandson, also was elected President. Both wrote their Inaugural Addresses at Berkeley. Today Berkeley is open to the public, there is a marker at the site on the James River shore where the 1619 Thanksgiving was held, and there is an annual historical re-enactment of the first thanksgiving at the original site.

For those who might have forgotten, the Pilgrims did not land on the rocky coast up north until December 1620. They claimed that they had intended to come to Virginia Colony, but had been blown off course by heavy winds.  They never continued on to Virginia Colony. They starved for the first year, so they were most grateful for their bountiful harvest in 1621.  According to the Pilgrim Hall website, “In … 1621, the 53 surviving Pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest, as was the English custom…. (It was a social occasion, a festival of food.)   The Pilgrims did not call this harvest festival a ‘Thanksgiving,’ although they did give thanks to God.  To them, a ‘Day of Thanksgiving’ was purely religious. Their first recorded religious ‘Day of Thanksgiving’ was held in 1623 in response to a providential rainfall.”

Virginians have another tie to our modern Thanksgiving celebration. Alexandria’s famous son George Washington issued his first Presidential proclamation on October 3, 1789, by calling for a day of public thanksgiving, fasting (not feasting) and prayer on Thursday, November 2, for the many blessings God had bestowed on our new country, asking pardon for our national transgressions, and seeking His aid in our future endeavors. Later governors and presidents continued this tradition of setting aside a day for thanksgiving.

It is appropriate for us to celebrate today, like our predecessors, with attendance at a thanksgiving service to God as well as feasting and fun with family and friends.

We Virginians are proud to tell our story and claim our heritage as the first English-speaking people to celebrate a public thanksgiving for our personal blessings as well as those to our community and nation.

Richard Bender Abell, Alexandria, Virginia, November, 2013 and his friend from church, Ellen Latane Tabb, also of Alexandria.