One Course of Thanksgiving History

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As Americans carve up an estimated 45 million turkeys on Thanksgiving, many will naturally assume that the cherished annual ritual originated in the first successful English settlement in America.  But did it? And what was that first colony? 

One in four New Jerseyans (24%) say the first English colony was in Massachusetts according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University survey. “If Thanksgiving is about giving thanks for that first harvest, one critical to the survival of the colonists,” says Gary H. Darden, a professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, “then it’s reasonable to assume that it took place in the first colony.”

But it wasn’t the Pilgrims at Plymouth who established the first successful English colony in North America. Their English brethren settled in Jamestown in present-day Virginia some 13 years earlier. Further, many historians assert there were a variety of thanksgivings in Virginia years before the Pilgrims gave thanks for their first harvest, actually a three-day binge festival, in October 1621.

Perhaps to their credit, 37% of New Jerseyans polled knew that Virginia was the site of the first successful English settlement in what is now the United States. 

“I’m not an easy grader,” said Darden. “But I give the public fair marks on this question. We are bombarded more by corny advertising surrounding Thanksgiving than by good history.”

However, another one-third wouldn’t hazard a guess while 6% offered other answers altogether.  And different age groups scored differently: 31% over the age of 45 correctly named Jamestown as the first successful English colony, but only 12% of those between18-29 did.  Those under 30 years of age were also more likely than others to confess they didn’t know (40%).

“This is surprising and a little dismaying,” said Darden, “Older people tend to know this fact more than the younger ones who most recently sat in the history classroom.”

Adding more flavor to Thanksgiving’s old stuffing, many historians doubt whether the Massachusetts settlers deserve any credit for hosting the first Thanksgiving in English America. Evidence points to Berkeley Plantation in present-day Virginia, less than 50 miles upriver from that first Jamestown settlement. At Berkeley Plantation, a band of new colonists held Thanksgiving on Dec. 4, 1619. But theirs was not a festival of binging on food and drink: The colonists at Berkeley Plantation lacked the provisions and time to hold that kind of a celebration. Their thanksgiving was more religious than culinary. Still, other historians point to an earlier ceremony held at Cape Henry on April 29, 1607, when the original Jamestown settlers made land and gave thanks for their safe passage--again more of a religious ceremony than a festival.

“Naturally there are turf wars over historic ‘firsts’ between Massachusetts and Virginia,” added Darden, “but a case can be made for crediting Cape Henry and Berkeley Plantation with the first ritual of giving thanks, while Plymouth certainly set the thankful tone for ritual gorging. And the latter is far more appealing to the appetites of the average American family.”

So why the confusion over the historical narrative? “Sadly enough,” Darden points out, “that entire Berkeley settlement was destroyed by a Native American massacre, reasonably leaving the tradition’s torch to their English brethren to the north. Regardless, the idea of giving thanks for what one has is relevant whether Berkeley Plantation or Plymouth gets credit for the act.”

Ironically, the original destination of the Pilgrims when they left England in September 1620 was present-day Virginia where there was an existing contingent of English colonists. Instead, the Mayflower first spotted land in November off Cape Cod and thus altered the course of English expansion in America and Thanksgiving history.

The telephone survey of 1,064 adult New Jersey residents statewide by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind from September 4 through September 8 and has a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points.

Contact: Gary Darden 646-303-1969

For more information, please call (973) 443-8661.

Copyright © 2008, Fairleigh Dickinson University. All rights reserved. FDU PublicMind Poll [Latest update 081126]