A Brief History of Thanksgiving in America

His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing.

In Virginia, members of the Berkeley Plantation first celebrated Thanksgiving. On December 4th, 1619, a group of settlers under the conduct of John Woodleefe, their captain and governor, arrived in Virginia. Led by a young Episcopal clergyman, George Thorpe, they held a Thanksgiving service, thanking God for their safe arrival. This was according to the instructions they had been given:

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

Today, this tradition is still honored with a Virginia Thanksgiving Festival held annually on the first Sunday in November at the Berkeley Plantation. Learn more here.

Two years after the first Berkeley Plantation Thanksgiving, further north in Plymouth, Massachusetts, another group of settlers celebrated their first Thanksgiving. After a cruel winter when half of their number died, the Pilgrims were able to reap a meager harvest, and they feasted and played games with their Indian friends to celebrate God’s goodness:

Our harvest being gotten, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might, after a special manner, rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation, and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Several years later, in 1623, the Plymouth Pilgrims, celebrated Thanksgiving again. Governor Bradford recounted the amazing story:

I may not here omit how, notwithstanding all their great pains and industry, and the hopes of a large crop, the Lord seemed to blast and take away the same, and to threaten further and more sore famine unto them, by a great drought which continued from the third week in May, until about the middle of July, without any rain, and with great heat, insomuch as the corn began to wither away, though it was set with the moisture whereof helped it much. Yet at length it began to languish sore, and some of the drier grounds were parched like withered hay, part whereof was never recovered. Upon which they set apart a solemn day of humiliation, to seek the Lord by humble and fervent prayer, in this great distress. And He was pleased to give them a gracious and speedy answer, both to their own, and the Indians admiration, that lived amongst them; for all the morning, and greatest part of the day, it was clear weather and very hot, and not a cloud or any sign of rain to be seen, yet toward evening it began to overcast, and shortly after to rain, with such sweet and gentle showers, as gave them cause of rejoicing and blessing God. It came, without either wind, or thunder, or any violence, and by degrees in abundance, as that the earth was thoroughly wet and soaked therewith. Which did so apparently revive and quicken the decayed corn and other fruits, as was wonderful to see, and made the Indians astonished to behold; and afterwards the Lord sent them such seasonable showers, with interchange of fair warm weather, as, through His blessing, caused a fruitful and liberal harvest, to their no small comfort and rejoicing. For which mercy in (in time convenient) they also set apart a day of thanksgiving. 

No wonder the Pilgrims wanted to give thanks to God! He had delivered them from a drought which certainly would have created another starving time for them. As we feast this year surrounded by family and friends let us remember that God is our abundant provider. 

No. LXXV., page 207 of The Records Of The Virginia Company of London, Volume III., 1607-1622

Jordan D. Fiore, editor, Mourt’s Relation:  A Journal of the Pilgrims of Plymouth (Plymouth, Massachusetts: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1985), 72

Verna M. Hall, The Christian History of the Constitution (San Francisco, CA: FACE, 1966), 215

Photo credit: Berkeley Plantation

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