Where was the first Thanksgiving? Like centuries of Americans, I grew up hearing that America’s first Thanksgiving took place in New England with the Pilgrims.
“Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together,” Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote in December 1621 of a Thanksgiving feast, which one might call “friendsgiving” today.
Earlier that year, in April 1621, after suspicious surveillance of each other, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag had entered a peace treaty that prevented war. The Wampanoag had lost as much as 90 percent of their tribe to a plague in the preceding years brought unknown by Europeans. The Pilgrims had lost 45 of the 102 Mayflower passengers. Both sides were highly motivated to survive at the time, and their treaty staved off war for 54 years.
“[M]any 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,” Winslow also wrote of their 1621 feast, crediting the goodness of God for their bounty.
Giving thanks was a top reason for celebrations among the Wampanoag and other native people of North America. Also contributing to that first joint feast, the Wampanoag “went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others,” Winslow noted in 1621.
Virginia’s Claim to the First Thanksgiving
After moving to Virginia, I discovered that Virginia also has a claim to Thanksgiving fame. “We ordain that this day of our ship’s arrival … in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God,” prayed Capt. John Woodlief upon landing 38 Britons on Dec. 4, 1619, two years before the Pilgrims’ first feast.