It’s Thanksgiving week… and where, really, was the first?

Posted on November 21, 2010 by


As we begin to enter Thanksgiving week, I’m wondering… where, really, was the first “thanksgiving”?

Well, technically, we have to narrow this down.

Since the first thanksgiving in North America was… well, hold on a sec…

Coronado Sets Out to the North, by Frederic Remington, 1861-1909

…wasn’t the first thanksgiving in North America experienced in 1541 by Coronado’s party after crossing the Llano Estacado in the Texas Panhandle? I seem to recall something about the party having a thanksgiving mass after finding game (hmmm, giving thanks in the midst of food = thanksgiving?). If not then, certainly it happened in St. Augustine, in what is now Florida, in 1565, after Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, and 600 settlers landed and immediately gave thanks to God for surviving their treacherous journey.

O.K., this isn’t Anglo-centric, and probably doesn’t fit the general idea we get when we think about Thanksgiving… so, let’s think about the English in North America.

Perhaps then, the “first” can be attributed to Martin Frobisher, in what is now known as Newfoundland, in 1578. He being an English explorer of the Northwest Passage, supposedly gave formal thanks after his safe arrival. But then, from what I understand, this giving of “thanks” was actually no more than a hurried prayer… and not accompanying a bountiful meal.

You know… I don’t think that even that really works for us, in the geographical sense.

Alright, since we are English-centric in our thinking in relation to this event, and since the thirteen English colonies on the Atlantic seaboard are so commonly associated as the genesis of the United States… we have to narrow our focus to the first recognized “thanksgiving” among English colonists, at some place within this mass of land.

So, now that we’ve reduced the geographic area in which we can proclaim dominance in relation to the event… what about the Roanoke Colony? Frankly, we don’t know if they actually had a thanksgiving, sometime between after John White’s departure in 1587, and his return in 1590 (when the colonists were nowhere to be found)… so, for starters, scratch the Lost Colony folks.

That leads us to the Jamestown settlement… and this gets messy. Some make the claim that a “thanksgiving” took place in May 1607, but was this simply a giving of thanks sans the giving of thanks in the midst of a bountiful harvest?

Then too there is the story about the possibility of a thanksgiving held on October 4, 1607 in what is now… Maine. Indeed, Captain George Popham had led a contingent of English Puritans to share a harvest celebration with the Abnaki.

ther came 2 Canoas to the Fort, in which were Nahanada and his wife and Skidwares and the Basshabaes brother, and one more called Amenquin, a Sagamo, all whome the President [Popham] feasted and entertayned with all kyndnes both that day and the next, which being Sonday the President carried them with him to the place of publique prayers

I’m not sure, but I’m thinking this meeting was using the dinner table as a means of diplomacy… and, although they went to the “place of publique prayers” on the Sunday after the big dinner, I’m not getting the same picture I get when thinking of natives coming to Plymouth to share in a bountiful harvest and thanks.

Oh, I know! What about the “thanksgiving” at Berkeley Hundred, just upstream from Jamestown, that took place on December 4, 1619. Lead by Captain John Woodleaf, the event was based on the arrival of 38 settlers at that site, and in accordance with the group’s charter, their arrival was to be marked by a day of thanksgiving.

Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god.

But… you know what? Something’s missing.

Each and every one of these events, within this designated area of land that later became the thirteen colonies, was male-centric. We get the general idea of Thanksgiving as being an event among family… not just in the presence of other men… but with wives and children.

Indeed, women were a rarity in Jamestown up until after 1620, and there are only two known to have been in the party prior to that time – Anne Burras and Temperance Flowerdew. Until after 1620, thanksgivings in Virginia were limited to men… not the same picture we get when we think of Thanksgiving. So, even the Berkeley Hundred “thanksgiving”, which preceded Plymouth’s “thanksgiving”, was not a family event.

In the end, it may be that the Plymouth “thanksgiving” is the only one that fits our general understanding of what Thanksgiving is, and perhaps that’s why it gets top-billing in our collective historical memory.

That being said, however, at the time, the Plymouth “event”… ummm… was not regarded as a “Thanksgiving observance”. Doh!

In fact, it was, to the English, a tradition carried over from the harvest festivals of old… and a regular Wampanoag tradition.

Inside Plimouth Plantation, replica of the original settlement... although not on the original site

Even so… Plymouth’s event of November 1621 wasn’t an affair in which women were a common sight. In fact, despite imagery that says otherwise, there were only 4 women left out of the eighteen who had arrived with the initial settlers in December 1620.

More than 4 women in this ca. 1914 painting. "The First Thanksgiving," painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930)

... and popular memory seems to have impacted this painting as well... more than 4 women again.Painting of "The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" By Jennie A. Brownscombe. (1914)

So, really, what “first thanksgiving” truly conforms to our vision of Thanksgiving?

Even Peppermint Patty knows Thanksgiving… after all, she asked Charlie (aka “Chuck”) Brown…

Where’s the turkey, Chuck? Don’t you know anything about Thanksgiving dinners? Where’s the mashed potatoes? Where’s the cranberry sauce? Where’s the pumpkin pie?

Sorry… I couldn’t resist.

But seriously, it’s probably the case that none of the early English “thanksgivings” in the colonies come close to what we may imagine.

Historically speaking, as a “first” event, is it alone, defined as the act of nothing more than giving thanks? Is it defined as giving thanks in the presence of a bountiful harvest? Is it defined as giving thanks among family AND a bountiful harvest?

Frankly, where it happened depends on personal definition of “thanksgiving” as an historical event… and even if you don’t like the way that Plymouth has been given top-billing in our collective historical memory, I don’t think you’re going to take the turkey and all the trimmings… and family at the dinner table… out of the way the day is enjoyed.

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