We’re all about pilgrimages – going to places that are fun and informative. Well, for this week’s destinations, we’re taking that term literally by sharing places that have people dressed up as Pilgrims and Early Americans to explain the meaning of Thanksgiving. We also are acknowledging that American Indians may not be as thankful for this holiday and should be honored for their contributions. In compiling this list, we are most thankful to suggestions from Chris Epting, one of the nation’s most inventive pop-culture archivists and explorers.
But before we share these adventures, just a little background on Thanksgiving that could be used for the car ride. And also to explain some places on this list that don’t automatically come to mind for Thanksgiving.
Sure, we celebrate the courage and perseverance of the Pilgrims, who had their first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, after half of the settlers died of starvation, and their second in July of 1623, after a rain saved their crops. But other places, like Jamestown and the Berkley Plantation, in Virginia, and St. Augustine, Florida, also claim early Thanksgiving customs.
Explorers definitely gave thanks when they hit the New World after enduring weeks on leaky boats eating hard biscuits and suffering through Atlantic storms. Columbus and his men gave thanks when they landed. Pedro Menendez de Aviles had a priest give an entire mass of Thanksgiving on September 8, 1565, when he claimed St. Augustine, Florida, for Spain.
However, the reason Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock get so much credit is that it was one of the rare colonies that included women right from the first. And leave it to women to make sure things happen.
Here’s one last trivia fact: The date of Thanksgiving moved around (in 1777 it was December 18) until Abraham Lincoln nailed it down in 1863 as the fourth Thursday in November. Reservations are still available at many of these places if you want to visit.
Berkeley Plantation: The First Documented Thanksgiving
Many believe that the first Thanksgiving in America as we know it was in New England. Guess what? It took place in Virginia, at Berkeley Plantation, more than a year before the Mayflower set sail for Plymouth. Captain John Woodlief led his crew and passengers to a grassy slope along the James River on December 4, 1619. According to the first of 10 instructions from their British sponsors: "Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perputually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."
The settlers duly marked that day for giving thanks, until a massacre three years later killed nine of them and polished off a third of the English living in Virginia. The survivors skedaddled to the well established fort in Jamestown. Thanksgiving is celebrated at Berkeley Plantation on the first Sunday in November. (If you are going to claim you are the first Thanksgiving, it won’t do to celebrate that after the official Thanksgiving, would it?)
Since you’ve missed it this year, you can always visit the plantation and walk to the brick gazebo on the river, the spot where the English settlers landed. Berkeley Plantation is open from 9 am until 5 pm daily, but closed on that other, official, Thanksgiving Day and on Christmas. Admission is $11 for adults, $6 for children 6 to 12, students $7.50.
The Jamestown Settlement: The First English Settlers Who Survived
Raleigh, Virginia Dare? Those names are from the colony on Roanoke Island, Virginia, the first English settlement in America, which was also the first to be lost and never quite found. Captain John Smith, Pocahontas, Powhatan. Those names are from the first permanent English settlement in America, Jamestown, on a marshy semi-island in the James River. Some 100 men and 4 boys arrived on May 14, 1607, and only through shipments of new settlers from England, and the discovery of growing fine tobacco, did the colony survive. It is a 30-mile drive from Berkeley Plantation to here, where a re-creation called the Jamestown Settlement, started in 1957, contains a replica English fort, a Native American village, films showing life in the 17th century, and copies of the settlers’ ships, the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed.
At Jamestown Settlement on November 27 through 29 there is a “Food and Feasts” celebration that explores 400-year-old cooking. (The celebration will gloss over the “starving years” at the settlement, 1609 to 1610, when the colonists ate their homes and, it is said, each other.) The demonstrations will include smoking, drying, salt curing, and pickling. Venison and turkey will be roasted over an open fire and corn, bean, and squash stews will be prepared in clay pots. Jamestown Settlement is at State Route 31, James City County, and the site of the original fort is just across the water on Jamestown Island. Open 9am to 5 pm, $13.50 for adults and $6.25 for children 6 to 12.
The Jeffersonian Thanksgiving Festival
Here’s an odd one, because when Thomas Jefferson was President (1801 to 1809), he refused to issue proclamations of thanksgiving, because he considered it a religious holiday and outside the role of the government. Nonetheless, Charlottesville, Virginia offers Governor Jefferson's Thanksgiving Festival, with more than 60 activities at seven venues around the city’s historic Court Square. The celebration on November 21, 22 and 23 offers to plunge us back into Revolutionary times, from 1779 to 1781. More than 100 people in costumes (powdered wigs and breeches for men; hoop skirts and bonnets for women) portray historical figures; there are also demonstrations of arts and crafts of the period, folk music and dancing, horse-drawn carriage rides and lectures on African-American culture.
Charlottesville’s excuse for this event? In 1779, when Jefferson was governor, he passed on a Thanksgiving proclamation from the Continental Congress to the Virginia legislature. When the legislature passed the bill, he signed it. Et voila! The Jeffersonian Thanksgiving Festival; On November 22, at 7 pm, the Three Presidents’ Ball is $10 and Dolly Madison’s Thanksgiving dinner is $20; otherwise, events, parades, holiday markets, etc., are free and run from 10 am to 6 pm Friday and Saturday; 2 to 5 pm on Sunday. A trip up the mountain to see Jefferson’s actual home, Monticello, is highly recommended.
The Bedrock of any Thanksgiving Celebration: Plymouth
Plymouth bills itself as “America’s Hometown.” It offers a nifty warm-up to Thanksgiving on November 22 and 23. The Pilgrims were religious fundamentalists trying to escape the strict interpretations of the Anglican Church (the Church of England). But the 102 brave souls who climbed onboard the Mayflower should have brought along a better navigator, because they were headed for Virginia (average November temperature today, a low of 39 to a high of 62) and landed on Cape Cod (average November temperature today, a low of 37 to a high of 49).
They got chased off Cape Cod a month later by unfriendly Indians, and sought shelter inside the crook of the arm of Cape Cod. Plymouth Rock, a massive piece of granite they are alleged to have stepped on when they arrived, is carved with the date 1620, but their first feast had to wait until their first harvest, in 1621, and even then the Wampanoag Indians provided the meat. The current festival offers plenty of meat at the Food Market, along with chowders, crab boils, and British Beer ($10 entrance fee, children free). There is a parade on Saturday, at 10:30, with floats depicting five centuries of American history, drum and bugle corps, marching bands, following an opening ceremony on the waterfront with a military flyover. There is a drum and bugle corps concert indoors Saturday night (if you’ve never attended one indoors, I have two words for you: ear plugs). A heated crafters pavilion is open and re-enacters in the historic downtown play figures like the blacksmith, the New England Brigade and … Ulysses S. Grant? (I’m sure someone will explain that one.)
Always on display here, the Mayflower II, a replica of the ship staffed with role-playing interpreters who portray passengers and crew, $10 for adults. (Did you know that only 35 of the 102 passengers were actual Pilgrims?) And Plimoth Plantation, three miles down the coast, has a replica of a 1627 English Village and a 17th century Wampanoag home site. Thanksgiving meals at Plimoth Plantation are sold out, but you can always walk around and sniff. Plimoth Plantation is at 137 Warren Avenue, Plymouth, Mass. It is open daily through November 30 from 9 am to 5:30 pm. Adults $22, children $14.
St. Augustine: The Oldest European Settlement in America
Before the English made their way to Virginia, Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles brought 400 Spaniards to the New World, to a land they called La Florida, in September 1565. Menendez asked the local Indians, the Timucua, to join his settlers in a thanksgiving feast. The Timucua contributed maize, beans, squash, nuts, and shellfish (probably leaving behind their other delicacies like shark and alligator) while the Spaniards made a stew called Cocido of pork, beans and onions. All of this is recounted in a children’s book that came out last year called America’s Real First Thanksgiving.
That said, there is nothing particularly Thanksgiving-oriented in St. Augustine itself. It’s a great time of year, however, to ride the old town trolley, visit the lighthouse, check out the Fountain of Youth (spoiler alert, Ponce de Leon came nowhere near St. Augustine), and go see Fort Matanzas. Best of all, you could have a four-course Thanksgiving lunch at Collage in the old part of town. Collage offers “Chicken Liver Mousse Pate with Crostini” “cider house salad” “Cajun Fried Turkey Breast with sweet potato mash, green beans and cranberry relish” or “Prosciutto Wrapped Quail with butternut squash gnocchi in sage butter,” and desserts like “Cinnamon Bread Pudding with Apple Jack Sauce.” Adults, $40; children under 10, $10. Tell them I sent you. St. Augustine tourism information is available, but it’s best to just go and walk around. The weather this time of year is perfect.
November: National American Indian Heritage Month
The Wampanoag and other tribes of New England will be observing their 39th National Day of Mourning at 12 noon on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, on the hill above Plymouth Rock. A pot luck meal will follow. They invite participation and observation.
Or you might head to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, where this weekend visitors can try their hand at grinding corn or making a corn-husk doll. On November 28, 29 and 30 there is a special Celebrate Thanksgiving program with native story telling as well as the current exhibits on Algonquin Peoples of the Chesapeake, and the Anglo-Indian artist Fritz Scholder. The museum is on the National Mall, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW, Washington DC. It is open from 10 am to 5:30 daily. Admission is free.