The 38 British settlers who landed on Dec. 4, 1619 at the site of what is now Berkeley Plantation, about halfway between Williamsburg and Richmond, fell to their knees and thanked the Good Lord. Little wonder that they were thankful after having survived a 75-day journey that should have taken half that time in the cramped quarters of a small wooden ship with munitions running out.
The guidance provided them by the investors supporting their voyage was that they should observe a period of thankfulness for having completed the journey. Do not envision the event as a bountiful feast for it was not.
The guidance document along with our own imagination of how thankful the voyagers must have been constitute sufficient evidence for Virginia to lay claim to having the first English Thanksgiving in the New World. Along with that claim in most documents celebrating the happening is a note pointing out that it happened two years before the festivities at Plymouth, Massachusetts, that are more commonly referred to as the first Thanksgiving.
The Virginia Thanksgiving is qualified as being the first English Thanksgiving for in Florida there is evidence that the actual first Thanksgiving took place around 50 years before Berkeley and Plymouth near the Matanzas River in St. Augustine, Florida. Rather than a scene like that typically thought of as Thanksgiving, the Florida First Thanksgiving would have had Spanish Conquistadors wearing armor gathering around eating salt pork and drinking red wine with local Native Americans.
From its earliest beginnings the diversity of America with the Spanish, British and Indigenous Americans was providing ample reason for a thanksgiving celebration. None of those early celebrations continued.
The celebration that we know of as Thanksgiving today traces its continuous history to 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation during the Civil War to “render the homage due to the Divine Majesty for the wonderful things he had done in the nation’s behalf and…to subdue the anger which has produced and for so long sustained a needless and cruel rebellion…and finally to lead the whole nation through the paths of repentance and submission to the Divine Will back to the perfect enjoyment of union and fraternal peace.”
The thought of recognizing one’s blessings and being thankful for them predate any events or proclamations. Sometimes in times of strife and conflicts we can forget how fortunate we are. Celebrating a holiday and witnessing the generosity of giving that is a part of Thanksgiving give us pause to take stock of where we are as individuals and as a nation. The challenges of the present remind us that we are not starting a new nation; we are building on a history of progress in human rights and prosperity unlike any other time in human history. We have institutions that will endure. We have and continue to acquire scientific knowledge that can be applied to sustain our civilization.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, being thankful for what we have and recognizing our opportunity for a brighter future.