Reasserting Virginia’s Claim to Thanksgiving
Let’s have a heart to heart about Thanksgiving. I fully admit that I am not taking the most historically accurate or rational view on this debate, but I do feel that Virginia has to stake its claim to the first Thanksgiving. You can argue over the earliest date for Thanksgiving in the colonies or whether the celebration became an annual event where it occurred. Virginia is perceived as the underdog in this fight, so we need to take our argument to a national level. Now, to clarify, what I am referring to is the first Christian Thanksgiving in British North America. Thanksgivings have taken place in many cultures for thousands of years before it became popular in the British colonies. To complicate matters further, there are those who argue that the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine, Florida, held the first Thanksgiving. However, my battle is with the Pilgrims of Massachusetts dominating Thanksgiving culture over Virginia.
It is appropriate during the Civil War sesquicentennial commemoration that we take a closer look at when our Thanksgiving took shape, because it was Lincoln who first proclaimed Thanksgiving a national annual holiday for what was left of the United States in 1863. As a person who was not exclusively educated in Virginia schools, I was shocked to learn that my primary school teachers in various states taught me inaccuracies about the origins of Thanksgiving. I was told the story of the Pilgrims and their voyage to Plymouth Rock. It was not until I moved to Virginia at the ripe old age of eighteen that I learned that the first Thanksgiving took place not at Plymouth Plantation but here in Virginia on the grounds of Berkeley Plantation! Is it the allure of making construction paper Pilgrim hats that perpetuates this myth in primary education? Okay, I will admit that the Indian Uprising of 1622 does not make the history of Virginia’s Thanksgiving about giving thanks, but we have to embrace our history warts and all. I have found that many other transplants to Virginia are as interested and surprised to learn that Plymouth, Massachusetts, was not the site of the first Thanksgiving in North America. Who can blame us. Our whole environment on Thanksgiving Day is bombarded with images of Pilgrims—from the Macy’s Day parade floats to the Pilgrim-hat-wearing turkeys that adorn many food-laden tables. So my question Virginia is why are we not fighting for our number-one status in the history of Thanksgiving?
I see this as a simple public relations battle that this great commonwealth has lost for now but is extremely capable of winning! We need to retake the turkey-frilled crown and encourage all states to recognize our history. My initial idea to correct the Pilgrim sham was to create a YouTube video where New England icons Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are taught the true history of Thanksgiving by Virginia stars like Richmond-native Warren Beatty and Charlottesville-based musician Dave Matthews. “How do you like them apples, Plymouth?” But I don’t have the clout or connections to bring these people together to educate America about Thanksgiving. Instead, I will have to settle for this blog and hope it will set a fire under some Virginians to assert our rights to the first Thanksgiving title. So, as you enjoy your Thanksgiving Day take a moment to reflect on what you are thankful for before reminding your out-of-state family members about Virginia’s place in our collective Thanksgiving history. Pass the bean casserole please.
Here are some smarter people doing a podcast about the origins of Thanksgiving:
Here is the promotion of the first of Thanksgiving on the Virginia.org website.
Laura Stoner is the Assistant Archivist for Business Collections at the Virginia Historical Society.