The First Thanksgiving
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In 1619, two years before the colonists arrived in Massachusetts, a band of English settlers landed in Virginia, at what is now known as the Berkeley plantation. History says the travelers immediately fell to their knees to thank God for their safe arrival. Here is a closer look at the role these settlers had in shaping what we know today as Thanksgiving.
Most people think of the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving day: 1622, the Mayflower, Squanto and his tribe sharing a feast with the Puritans at Plymouth Rock.
But the children at Stonebridge School in Virginia present a different picture. With colonial hats and feathered headbands, these children re-enact what it must have been like back in the 1600s, marking the events surrounding the first Thanksgiving at a very different time and place.
It all began on the shores of Cape Henry in Virginia. In 1607, the first English colonists arrived: 105 English men and boys, and 39 sailors, among them the Reverend Robert Hunt. He was the first minister in America. According to Jamestown site historian, Dianne Stallings, he was instrumental in establishing the protestant faith in the new world.
Following a mandate from the king of England, Hunt pitched a cross and led the men in prayer on the beaches of Cape Henry.
"Reverend Hunt would have had the Book of Common Prayer as well as the Bible," says Stallings. "And this would be a general prayer of thanksgiving that would have been read at that period of time."
Titled simply, the "General Thanksgiving", this prayer, in one of its various versions, reads as follows:
"Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory."
For two weeks the men combed the shores of the James River, scouting out the perfect place for their new settlement. Finally, they decided on Jamestown.
And according to Stallings, the settlers came for three reasons: God, glory, and gold.
"England was very concerned that the Protestant faith be established in the new world, and, of course, they were dedicated to the fact that they wanted to Christianize the Indians," she says.
Perhaps the most famous Indian at the settlement was Pocahontas. Through her the Powhatan Indians and the colonists made peace. She would bring the colonists food, and some historical accounts say she even saved Captain John Smith's life from her own people. Eventually, Pocahontas was held hostage by the colonists. It was then that she converted to Christianity and married one of the Jamestown leaders, John Rolfe. She was baptized into the Christian name, Rebecca.
Through Pocahontas, the settlers saw their goal of spreading the Protestant faith begin to come to fruition. Years later she returned to England with her husband. Sadly, at just 22 years old, she died. It was two years after Pocahontas' death that another group of English colonists landed in Virginia. After ten weeks at sea, they finally landed at the Berkeley Plantation. Virginia Historians claim that this is where the real first Thanksgiving took place. The plantation sits just a few miles from the original Jamestown settlement.
"The Virginia Company had directives given to the settlers and the directives were that upon landing, they were to give thanks and every year thereafter make it an annual celebration in thanks to the Lord for a safe passage," says Barbara Awad, president of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival.
This was about seventeen months before the pilgrims landed in Plymouth. And while the Pilgrims celebrated with a feast, much like the traditional meal Americans eat on Thanksgiving, the settlers at Berkeley Plantation had a meager meal.
"It wasn't quite the abundant festival, the cornucopia that we usually see on Thanksgiving," says Awad.
Historians say their feast included bacon, peas, cornmeal cakes, and cinnamon water. But regardless of the menu, to these settlers, the first Thanksgiving was much more than turkey and pumpkin pie. It was all about prayer.
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