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I presume that all y’all were taught the same as I was in elementary school about the Pilgrims and our first Thanksgiving celebration, held some 402 years ago now, at Plymouth Plantation, in what is now the state of Massachusetts.
The Puritans were not the first colonists. The first English were not even the first colonists in what is now these United States. The Spanish had settled St. Augustine in what is now Florida in 1565. According to Historian Michael Gannon, St. Augustine was founded with a shared thanksgiving meal on September 8 of that year.
Twenty years later in 1585, the English attempted to establish the colony of Roanoke in what is now North Carolina, but its inhabitants were to disappear forever without a trace.
In 1607, the English successfully established the settlement of Jamestown in the colony of Virginia. Ships would come and go, bringing colonists and supplies, and carrying back cargoes of lumber, deer skins and eventually the cash crop of tobacco. In 1609, my eleventh great-grandfather Henry Spellman (1595-1623) arrived aboard the ship “Unity” with the third supply flotilla of nine ships carrying between 500 and 600 passengers.
His servitude was traded to the local natives by Captain John Smith in exchange for native lodgings to house the new colonists. This act probably saved his life, as the new colonists arrived at the end of the planting season, and unable to grow and prepare foodstuffs to carry them through the winter, many starved, with some resorting to eating dogs, cats, rats, mice, their shoes, and even each other to survive. When resupply ships arrived in May of 1610, only 60 of the original 300 colonists were still alive, leading to the first English celebration of thanksgiving in the new world. This, however, was to be a singular celebration.
A few years after, in 1619, a group of English colonists landed on the James River at a place now known as “Berkeley Hundred” (as in 100 acres) and held the first Thanksgiving to be repeated. Captain John Woodlief and 37 men had sailed from Bristol, England, on the ship “Margaret,” and after nearly three months voyage, on December 4,1619, reached “Berkeley Hundred” plantation in Charles City County, Virginia – on the James River about 20 miles upstream from Jamestown.
Sir William Throckmorton’s “Ordinances Directions and Instructions” for the governance of Berkeley Hundred included the direction that “wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for planta[tion] in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetualy keept holy as a day of thanksgiuing to Almighty God.”
But I bet that you probably never heard about those first thanksgivings that the hardy few who managed to survive truly had something for which to be thankful.
In September of 1620, a group of Puritan colonists departed the port of Plymouth in South West England. The Pilgrims had survived a harrowing escape from religious prosecution in Europe and a tumultuous journey across the Atlantic Ocean headed for Jamestown in the colony of Virginia. When they ran short of provisions, notably their supply of beer, they landed at what is now known as Plymouth Rock in December of 1620.
Like many Virginia colonists before them, they arrived past the end of the planting season. Unable to grow and prepare foodstuffs to carry them through the winter, fully one-half of the Pilgrims would die before spring brought warmth. At the first harvest, those who had survived their first New England winter celebrated for three days in the year 1621, on a date that most historians believe probably began on about September 29 of that year.
The first Thanksgiving for the Pilgrims was attended by 50 Pilgrims and 90 Native Americans, led by King Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe. My own eleventh great-grandmother Mary Wentworth Brewster (1569-1627) helped prepare a feast of wild turkey, fish, eels, shellfish, and a Wampanoag dish called “nasaump,” consisting of boiled cornmeal mixed with vegetables and meats. There were no potatoes (a South American food not yet introduced into the global food system) and no pies (because there was no butter, wheat flour, or sugar).
It was not until the middle of the American Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the twenty-sixth, the final Thursday of November 1863, and it was not until 1941 that both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution fixing Thanksgiving as an official federal holiday.
My point of this little review of Thanksgiving history is to point out that Thanksgiving is not just a day off from work, nor just a time to gather and eat a lot of food, nor a day of parades, or football games… those who celebrated the first thanksgivings truly had something to be thankful for.
I am thankful that I am alive today, having survived active military service during the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War, the Global War on Terrorism, and the Iraq War. And while I may not have ever suffered starvation, I have been through periods where I was (very) hungry, without the ability to provide for better sustenance. I am thankful that this Thanksgiving I will not be hungry, and that I will enjoy an abundance of traditional foods.
I am thankful that I was born in these United States and that I grew up in an America that was at one time a beacon of liberty and freedom. I am thankful for my spouse, without whom I am not sure that I would be here writing this today. I am thankful that of my two children, I still have one alive today, and I am thankful for her son, my grandson, who will grow up knowing everything that I can teach him before my time on this planet is done.
What are you truly thankful for?