Did Thanksgiving Start With Pilgrims?
Why Virginia, Texas and Florida take issue with the Massachusetts claim to the first celebration
Myth: The first Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth, Mass.
Facts: If you learned in school that Thanksgiving started with the Pilgrims and the Indians feasting together in New England, your education might have been over-simplified.
It's true that such a feast took place — and it was a doozy of a dinner. "For three dayes we entertained and feasted," wrote one colonist who experienced the 1621 event firsthand. They even ate the traditional bird, according to another, who recalled a "great store of wild Turkies."
But this type of event wasn't what the Puritans would have called "thanksgiving." To them, the word meant prayer. Many early American communities observed solemn, prayer-filled days of thanksgiving during the 17th century.
An earlier colonial one happened on Dec. 4, 1619, a year before the Pilgrims would arrive at Plymouth Rock, when colonists landed on what's now the coast of Virginia to found Berkeley Hundred (now Charles City). They were under strict orders from the London Company about what to do when they got there: "We ordaine that the day of our ships arrival … shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God," read the edict. The Pilgrims might have feasted, but these colonists used the word "thanksgiving" first.
So which "first" celebration trumps the others? According to Ann Berry, executive director of the Pilgrim Society and Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass., the Pilgrims' feast wins. "To us, 400 years later, that's what we as Americans look to as the origin of our Thanksgiving today," she says. But Tammy Radcliff, manager of the Berkeley Plantation, favors Virginia's. "This was the first official Thanksgiving, the documented Thanksgiving," she explains.
As for Texas, Barbara Angus, the senior curator at the El Paso Museum of History, takes a longer view. "It is simply human nature to celebrate after great triumph or trauma," she says, and there was plenty of trauma to go around when North America was first being settled by Europeans. Plus, adds Angus, even among the museum's staff, there is disagreement. "We have a hold-out from Florida who says the first Thanksgiving was over in Florida," she says.
Texas or Florida? Virginia or Massachusetts? Potato, potahto. Mashed white ones and sweet baked ones. Please pass the gravy.
Beth Goulart is a journalist based in Austin, Texas.
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