First Thanksgiving in New England? Virginia Beat Them to It.

Nov 23, 2016


Credit The First Thanksgiving / Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Here’s a little Thanksgiving trivia for your holiday table. The Pilgrims did not celebrate the first Thanksgiving. That’s a distinction claimed by Florida. Even Virginia has an earlier Thanksgiving than Massachusetts. 


You know the story. Or perhaps it’s better to say you know the myth about the first Thanksgiving, celebrated by the Pilgrims in New England.

Not true, says Florida historian Michael Gannon. He says the Spanish first celebrated Thanksgiving at St. Augustine in 1565. The reason you think it happened in Massachusetts is a matter of public relations. 

“It was a matter of ignorance and self-promotion. But the people of New England seized on everything that they wanted to, to say that they were the first," Gannon says. "Of course, they weren’t. But they gathered all the publicity and promoted themselves from that day down to this."

Even Virginia has an earlier claim to Thanksgiving. That was in 1619 — two years before the Thanksgiving in Plymouth.

The Virginia Thanksgiving was celebrated by Captain John Woodlief. His descendant Graham Woodlief says it was President Franklin Roosevelt who began the idea that the Pilgrims started the tradition of Thanksgiving. 

“I think that basically new New Englanders had the upper hand when it came to publicizing the Thanksgivings, and I mean that seriously," says Woodlief. "They had better PR than we did."

One important point about the Thanksgiving celebrations in Florida and Virginia that pre-dated the one in Massachusetts — both of them were religious services, not meals.