First Thanksgiving was actually in December

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Thanksgiving holiday we celebrate every November began in 1863 with a proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln but it was not made into law until 1941.

The first American Thanksgiving was not in Massachusetts in 1620, but in 1619 at Berkeley Plantation on the James River. On Dec. 4, 1619, Captain John Woodlief, a former Jamestown colonist, came ashore with 37 new English settlers to develop the Berkeley Hundred, an 8,000-acre site named for its sponsor, Sir Richard Berkeley. Asking the settlers to kneel, Woodlief began reading Berkeley’s proclamation, “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

This, insist members of the Virginia First Thanksgiving Festival Inc., which reenacts the event every November at Berkeley Plantation, was the first Thanksgiving. No Indians and probably no food, although bacon, peas, cornmeal cakes and cinnamon water have been mentioned.

The irony here is that for 300 years nobody remembered, let alone celebrated, that first Thanksgiving. Then one day in 1931, the Berkeley Company documents surfaced in, of all places, in the New York Public Library, among them a record of the 1619 ceremony.

In 1958 a group of determined believers formed the Virginia First Thanksgiving Festival Inc., “to gain appropriate recognition for Virginia’s documented claim to the first official Thanksgiving in America.” And then in 1962 came a mea culpa from President John F. Kennedy via his special assistant, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. “You are quite right,” he wrote, corroborating the Virginia Festival’s claim, “and I can only plead an unconquerable New England bias.”

We got to see Berkeley Plantation while on the Virginia garden tour this past April. It was very exciting to see where the first Thanksgiving took place and to wonder what they really ate. The Berkeley date is Dec. 4, 1619 (from the old calendar) and people from all parts of the state flock to the celebration. Tables are spread on the lawn, chairs are pushed near tall green boxwood, and a feast is prepared of turkey, ham, Virginia oysters, candied sweet potatoes and carrots and parsley potatoes. The dining room at Berkeley has a handsome sideboard filled with all kinds of desserts such as wine jelly, ambrosia, pecan pie, pumpkin pie and a pineapple garnished with strawberries, pineapple and melon balls on bamboo skewers.

In honor or Berkeley and my own Thanksgiving feast I prepared the recipe for pecan pie from The James River Plantations’ Cookbook, which I had purchased on my visit in April. I also researched the best pie dough I could find and think you will find the one I have here is just the best. Lots of butter, but really flaky.

Happy Thanksgiving to you, and I hope all of those pies turn out well!

From The James River Plantations’ Cookbook, ‘A Glimpse into the Homes and Kitchens of Old Virginia.’


3 eggs, slightly beaten

1 cup sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

Pinch Cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon salt

½-1 cup pecans pieces

1 teaspoon vanilla

9-inch unbaked pie shell

Mix the ingredients, adding the nuts last. Pour into pie shell. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake until filling is firm. (Old timers shook the pie slightly and when its center remained still, the pie was cooked.) Baking time is about 50 minutes. When done, the top will be firm and crusty with the pecans showing.

From the 2013 November issue of Saveur magazine, I found this great pie dough recipe. It makes enough for two crusts, and you can freeze it for a month. Believe me, it is delicious.



For all types of pies including fruit, nut and custard pies.

2 ¼ cups flour

1 tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

12 tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed and chilled

6 tbsp. ice-cold water

Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Using a dough blender, two forks, or your fingers, cut butter into flour mixture, forming pea-size crumbles. Add water, work dough until smooth but with visible flecks of butter. (Alternatively, pulse ingredients in a food processor.) Divide dough in half and flatten into disks. Wrap disks in plastic wrap; chill for an hour before using.

Remember, for a good dough, let it rest before rolling out. Use high fat content at least 83 percent butter for a flaky crust. I use Kerrygold unsalted butter from grass-fed cows but there are some other European brands that work well also. Butter your pan before putting the dough in to keep from sticking. To avoid soggy bottom crusts add about one tablespoon each of flour and sugar over the crust before filling.