A COLONIAL THANKSGIVING
How does thanksgiving translate from colonial times to present day?
Many Americans erroneously assume that our nation has been celebrating Thanksgiving since the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To begin with, this was not even the first Thanksgiving celebrated in this country. An earlier thanksgiving was offered in prayer alone by members of the Berkeley plantation, an extension of the original Jamestown settlement, near present-day Charles City, Virginia, on December 4, 1619. Each year visitors are invited to join in the festivities at the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival hosted by Berkley Plantation, site of the very first Thanksgiving in 1619. Enjoy this day dedicated to history and food, and including house tours of the beloved 1726 Berkeley Plantation manor house. I remember visiting Berkley one year with my mom and my brother to do just that. I found it to be an enjoyable day and time and quite memorable. I highly recommend it.
Berkeley’s history begins in 1619 when settlers observed the first official Thanksgiving in America. The original 1726 Georgian mansion is the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison V, signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Virginia. The estate is also the birthplace of William Henry Harrison, ninth president of the United States, and ancestral home of his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president. During the Civil War, Berkeley was occupied by General George McClellan’s Union troops. While at Berkeley, General Daniel Butterfield composed the familiar tune “Taps”, first played by his bugler, O.W. Norton. Enthusiastic guides in period costumes conduct tours of the mansion daily. The mansion is furnished with a magnificent collection of 18th century antiques and artifacts. Grounds tours are self-guided and include five terraces of boxwood and flowering gardens leading to the James River, monuments to the First Thanksgiving and to Taps, and the Harrison family graveyard. The gardens provide an elegant setting for weddings and private events. The first Sunday in November, Berkeley celebrates the historic 1619 landing with the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival. In December, the plantation is decorated with traditional holiday decorations of fresh greenery and natural arrangements from Berkeley’s gardens. Berkley bears the designation of being both a Virginia and National Historic Landmark.
The Mayflower landed on December 11, 1620. The first winter was devastating and nearly half of the 102 passengers who had sailed from Plymouth, England died before spring. But the harvest of 1621 was a bountiful one. This “first” Thanksgiving was celebrated over a period of three days by the Pilgrims and neighboring Wampanoag Indians who supplied much of the food – venison, waterfowl, dried berries, shellfish and cornbread. Governor William Bradford sent “four men fowling” after wild ducks and geese. It is not certain that wild turkey was part of their feast. The term “turkey” was used by the Pilgrims to mean any sort of wild fowl.
This was the only Thanksgiving feast the Pilgrims ever celebrated. In fact, it wasn’t until June of 1676 that another Day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed.
It is believed that the Pilgrim Colonists and the Wampanoag Indians celebrated the very first Thanksgiving feast after their first harvest in 1621 in Plymouth, MA. The harvest festival was religious in nature and took place outdoors, where hundreds of people gathered to partake in the festivities. Food was plentiful for this occasion and the spirit of thankfulness prevailed over the three-day celebration.
Historians believe that on that Thanksgiving day almost 400 years ago the menu consisted of venison – or deer meat – roasted (not stuffed) turkey, wild fowl including ducks, geese, and even swans, fish, lobsters, pumpkin in some form, squash, beans, dried fruits, some sort of cranberry sauce, and dried Indian maize or corn. The sugar supply brought over on the Mayflower from England was nearly exhausted by the time of the first Thanksgiving, so it is widely surmised that wheat pudding may have been one of the only sweet dishes served.
The Pilgrims used many spices, including cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, and dried fruit in the meat sauces they prepared. The best way to cook things in the 17th century was to roast them. Many of the meats were put on a spit and turned over a fire for up to six hours at a time to ensure that the meat was evenly cooked. They didn’t have ovens so pies and cakes and breads most likely never made it to that first Thanksgiving dinner table in Plymouth.
Today we enjoy delicious meals served in a warm home where it’s quite possible a football game can be heard from a nearby television set. At the dining room table many Americans may enjoy herb-roasted turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, creamed corn, candied yams, almond green beans, cranberry-orange relish, turnip, popovers with butter, pumpkin pie, mince pie, apple pie, and vanilla ice cream, even tofu-turkey and similar menu items for those that follow vegan or vegetarian diets.
Another location I highly recommend any time of the year, but especially at Thanksgiving would be Colonial Williamsburg. They mix traditional colonial with yet a modern feel on things down to the last detail. It is an experience one should not miss. I remember when I was around 10 years old; my family came done on Thanksgiving vacation, and what a treat was in store for us. Spending time exploring the colonial capital of the United States and having a special thanksgiving dinner at the Williamsburg Inn was such a special treat and a wonderful memory for me.
Sunrise and fresh-baked bread warm up a cool, crisp day at Colonial Williamsburg. The alluring mix tempts the morning’s first visitors to follow the costumed bakers to the Raleigh Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street (shortened to “Dog” Street by locals). There you’ll find baskets filled with goodness. You couldn’t ask for a more appetizing start to celebrating Thanksgiving’s bounty at Colonial Williamsburg.
All of the taverns and inns offer superb holiday fare, costumed servers, roving minstrels, authentic furnishings, and a pleasant atmosphere. Our favorite meal has to be the sumptuous offering for Thanksgiving dinner at King’s Arms Tavern. Start with cream of Virginia peanut soup, so rich, flavorful, and filling that they could serve it as the main course. But then there would be no room for the roasted young turkey served with giblet gravy, cornbread dressing, Carolina candied yams, and cranberry chutney.
Be sure to visit the shops, cottages, and other sites in the historic district. If you haven’t been here in years (or ever), seeing Colonial Williamsburg this month makes good sense too.
Gone are the steamy summer lines waiting to get in all the shops, craft houses, and taverns. You’ll also get the jump on the Christmas season crowds coming to shop in December. There seem to be just enough visitors to make it sociable. Don’t be surprised if you’re the only one in front of the warm fire at the cobbler’s shop, usually one of the most popular places. That’s another reason why Thanksgiving is such a great time to visit.
Although there are many differences between the first Thanksgiving in 1621 and the holiday we celebrate today, the one tradition that remains constant (despite some commercialization) is the celebration of being thankful.
However we choose to celebrate our national holiday today, we should remember ALL the first Thanksgivings and proclamations, as well as our American ancestors, whether native born, free emigrant, slave or indentured servant. We should never forget the struggles they all endured to create this nation from which our generation and our children’s will continue to greatly benefit.