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Reasserting Virginia’s Claim to Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Greetings

Thanksgiving postcard, circa 1909 (Virginia Historical Society, 2012.1.34)

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?


Those ever-present Pilgrims (Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on

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 website.

Laura Stoner is the Assistant Archivist for Business Collections at the Virginia Historical Society.

Thanksgiving Greetings

Thanksgiving postcard, circa 1909 (Virginia Historical Society, 2012.1.33)

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 11/20/2012 2:02 pm

    This is great! If you cannot get the stars to participate perhaps a South Parkesque cartoon of them being educated will work. The fact that Virginia does not get credit for the “1st Thanksgiving,” bothers me more because attached to that is often the idea that Plymouth is where this country got its start. Again there were plenty of other people here — natives and the Spanish — but the country we know today got its start at Jamestown. I still remember when I had Virginia history in elementary school finding out that the first permanent colony was here not in Massachusetts. I was astounded and a little mad that people thought those people in the stupid hats were first! Spread the word!


  2. 11/20/2012 6:40 pm

    Laura, Happy Thanksgiving in advance. I am sure to be one of many who enjoy these VHS blogs and send them to colleagues. One request, please, as an educator: Can we replace the word “massacre” in referring to 1622? Certainly it echos the artwork shown in your blog; however, today, “uprising” acknowledges the indigenous peoples’ view of expanding settlement in colonial Virginia.


  3. B.C. permalink
    11/22/2012 11:56 am

    Another story on Virginia’s claim…


  4. 11/26/2012 8:38 am

    I agree. It’s long overdue that Virginia take her place in the Thanksgiving spotlight.


  5. 11/26/2012 8:42 am

    Reblogged this on Menokin: Rubble With A Cause and commented:
    A hearty “Hear! Hear!” and pass the gravy on this call to action for Virginia to claim her rightful spot as the birthplace of the first Thanksgiving. Weigh in and let us know who you stand with – the pilgrims or the planters?


  6. Douglas Burnett permalink
    11/28/2013 11:41 am

    The “Grinch” that stole Thanksgiving.

    From the Central Florida Episcopalian Nov 2009

    Beatrice Wilder—Diocesan Historiographer.

    I am going to break a whole bunch of rules here and as we are told many times ask forgiveness from Beatrice instead of permission. I became a member of the Episcopal Church, well at least I donated so I could get there newsletter, after Beatrice came over to Melbourne and spoke to the Genealogical Society of South Brevard. I was captured by her stories and her depth of knowledge on the Episcopal Church and early Florida. What a Lady!!! But now for this story which as I sited above appeared in the Episopalian Nov 2009.

    It was an Associated Press release in 1984 that broke the news that the first Thanksgiving did not occur in New England, as we have been led to believe for more than three centuries, but took place, are you ready for this, in FLORIDA! The source of this upheaval in a long-established tradition was Michael Gannon, Florida’s distinguished professor of history (now emeritus) at the University of Florida.

    “In his book The Cross in the Sand, Gannon noted that St. Augustine was the site of the first thanksgiving, a religious ceremony inaugurated by Pedro de Menedez, an illustrious Spanish admiral and explorer, who led an expedition of sailors, settlers and priests ashore at St. Augustine and founded the first permanent European settlement on these shores in 1565.”

    “After the hardships of travel at sea in those early years, it is hardly surprising that they all fell to their knees in thanks to Almighty God for a safe landing. On September 8, 1565, following a Mass of Thanksgiving, they held a community meal to which the Native Americans were invited. This religious ceremony and feast predated the one held by the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts by 56 years!”

    “As you well imagine, New Englanders did not take this astounding revelation lying down and Michael Gannon was awarded the epithet of “the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving””.

    “They need hardly worry, however. Stores do not display alligators and palm trees for Thanksgiving. They do, however, feature pumpkins and Pilgrims.”

    “Early histories of the United States were written by Massachuetts historians strongly influenced by their English heritage. It was not until I(Beatrice Wilder) studied history in college that I was introduced to less biased versions of colonial history in which Spain was not always the villain. Even the Thanksgiving in Virginia, which predated Plymouth Rock, have been given short shrift by traditional New England writers.”

    “Nevertheless, as Michael Gannon has put it, “St Augustine was up for urban renewal by the time the Pilgrims came to Plymouth.”



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