As every school boy and girl know, Plymouth or Plimoth (as it was known then) pilgrims were the first Americans to observe Thanksgiving in 1621.
Or were they? Other destinations beg to differ.
December 4, 1619, English settlers arrived at Berkeley Hundred on the banks of the James River about 20 miles from Jamestown – site where the first permanent colony of Virginia was established in 1607. The group’s charter from the old country required them to observe a “day of thanksgiving” to God. Upon landing, Captain John Woodleaf led a thanksgiving service.
Today, you can visit Berkeley Plantation and tour the grounds, gardens and three-story mansion dating to 1776. And there’s more than the 1619 event to observe.
Berkeley claims to be place where the Union General Daniel A. Butterfield composed “Taps” that was used as a “lights out” bugle call for soldiers camped on the grounds. The Georgian mansion is believed to be the oldest three-story brick house in Virginia that can document its founding. Antiques from the 18th century decorate the interior. Berkeley was an important center of economic, cultural, and social life in colonial Virginia, and it’s hosted 10 presidents, including George Washington.
Florida raises its hand too when the topic of Thanksgiving’s origins arises.
Teacher Robyn Gioia and retired University of Florida’s Michael Gannon have both written books laying claim to the first thanksgiving observance in their state. They claim Spanish settlers were the first, and it was in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565 that they dined on bean soup with Timucua Indians and gave thanks to God for provision and protection.
While St. Augustine is a beautiful city on the water with lots of historical components – such as the elegant remnants of the industrialist Henry Flagler’s efforts to develop the state and provide winter respite for wealthy northern elitists – there’s no rock or plantation mansion you can look at for connection to a first thanksgiving occasion.
Which brings us back to Massachusetts. Plimoth Plantation (www.plimoth.org) does Thanksgiving feasts in a big way, if you can get a space. Otherwise, the living history museum opens late March through the end of November and has 17th century home sites and a Mayflower II replica ship.
What all of these Thanksgiving claimants have in common is a commitment of gratitude to the Almighty for provision. America actually didn’t have an official holiday until 1861 when Abraham Lincoln declared it in the midst of the Civil War.
President Roosevelt in 1941 designated the fourth Thursday in November for observance. So the tradition continues in the 21st century. Happy Thanksgiving!
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