The Shocking Truth Behind The First Thanksgiving

The Shocking Truth Behind The First Thanksgiving

Throw those Mayflower notions overboard. Thanksgiving's real roots are at Virginia's Berkeley Plantation, the site for a feast of American history.

The first Thanksgiving celebration wasn’t a feast at all—no turkey, no harvest and no Pilgrims. 

That’s right: Contrary to popular belief, the first Thanksgiving in the New World was actually held one year and 17 days before the Pilgrims set sail from Plymouth, England, and not a single morsel of food was involved.

Image via Library of Congress.

Capt. John Woodlief and 37 other settlers held a short religious service on Dec. 4, 1619, the day they arrived at Berkeley Plantation in present-day Charles City, Va., after a two-and-a-half-month voyage. The group of young men, which included a shoemaker, cook, sawyer and gun maker, had set sail from Bristol, England, aboard the ship Margaret.
On the first Thanksgiving Day, they knelt down and gave thanks for their safe arrival in accordance with their charter, which stated, “Wee ordaine that the Day of our ship arrivall at the place assigned for Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” President Kennedy officially recognized Berkeley Plantation as the site of the first Thanksgiving in 1963.

Berkeley Plantation is the site of other American firsts

George Thorpe, an Anglican priest, brewed the first bourbon whiskey in America in 1621, and Benjamin Harrison III created the first commercial shipyard in 1691. The Harrison family built the three-story Georgian manor house on the hilltop site overlooking the James River in 1726. It had the first pediment roof in Virginia and was built with homemade bricks.
Berkeley Plantation was also home to many important figures and events in our nation’s history. Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and three-time Virginia governor, lived in the manor house.
It was also the birthplace of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States, who gave the longest inaugural address but served the shortest term. Gen. George McClellan’s Union troops made the plantation their home during the Civil War. You can still see an old cannonball lodged in one of the outbuildings today. Berkeley Plantation is also home to the familiar tune “Taps,” which Gen. Daniel Butterfield composed while camping at Berkeley.

Visit a part of history 

You can celebrate the first first Thanksgiving with a visit to the site where it all started. This historic plantation on the banks of the James River lies halfway between Williamsburg and Richmond, and it’s a spot you won’t want to miss.

Follow guides in period costumes as they lead you through the basement and first floor of the original manor house, furnished with a collection of 18th-century antiques. Then, guide yourself through the lush grounds, complete with five terraces of boxwood gardens and a monument to the first Thanksgiving. Experience the same Berkeley hospitality the first 10 presidents enjoyed at the renowned Coach House Tavern, located just 100 yards from the manor house.

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