Southerners are known for their hospitality. Southern hospitality is rooted in the distance that has so often separated neighbors in the South. Whether it was the large fields of plantations, the dense woods and swollen creeks, or the sparse number of people willing to brave the frontier, neighbors and visitors were a scarce commodity. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Aunt Sally looks out the window and sees some unknown person coming to her house. “Why, there’s somebody come! I wonder who ’tis? Why, I do believe it’s a stranger. Jimmy” (that’s one of the children), “run and tell Lize to put on another plate for dinner.” When a stranger arrived, a plate was set for him. That defines Southern hospitality.
Southern hospitality has become a byword, a tradition, a long-held and honored part of Southern culture and manners. In the classic story of “The Arkansaw Traveler,” the story centers around hospitality. In Jesse Stuart’s Hie to the Hunters, the Sparks family not only share their meals, but their home, barn, and hunting dogs with young Did Hargis who is from the city. Restaurants featuring Southern food also promote Southern hospitality, although diners are expected to pay for it.
Southern hospitality included not only sharing food and beds but also good manners toward the visitors. Good manners involve listening, nodding, and restraining impolite responses. Hence the War for Northern Aggression was termed “the Late Unpleasantness.” Yankees, meaning all people living north of the Mason-Dixon line, were called “those people” by Robert E. Lee, and many Southerners followed suit.
Thanksgiving is a welcomed tradition in the South. The idea of a big meal with lots of folks—friends, family, and anyone else who straggles in—fits right in with Southern hospitality and the Southerner’s love of good food and fellowship. But the Thanksgiving tradition and the oft-repeated history of it calls for Southerners to bite their tongues or at least chew a little longer on a turkey leg. After all, New Englanders love to boast of the First Thanksgiving. The story is told repeatedly of Pilgrims and their Indian neighbors gathering in 1621 to celebrate while eating lots of venison, fish, and other available foods. The meals were topped off with popcorn and some shooting contests.
Little children often reenact this story in school programs. Little turkeys are cut out of construction paper, even though turkeys may not have been served at Plymouth Rock. The boys and girls dress in paper hats, head coverings, and feathers to signify the story of the Pilgrims. That whole story is a wonderful part of American history, and, contrary to some twisting of the story, while the Pilgrims appreciated the friendly Indians, it was God who received thanks for the food.
The problem is this: We Southerners have had to politely listen to this story that “those people” tell over and over again. It would be downright inhospitable to be disagreeable especially on such an occasion as a Thanksgiving. But Thanksgiving in America did not begin at Plymouth Rock. Thanksgiving is a tradition begun in the South; the story of the first Thanksgiving is a Southern tale, and, not trying to be rude, we will tell it.
The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock late in 1620. After a rough year, they had buried a lot of their original group but had managed to build huts and learned to live off the land. So they felt it appropriate to celebrate their survival and acknowledge God’s blessings at the first New England thanksgiving in 1621.
Two years earlier, however, on December 4, 1619, a group of thirty-eight colonists landed at a place called Berkeley Hundred in Virginia. On that day of arrival, they began a thanksgiving celebration. This was in accordance with their charter which read as follows: “We ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival . . . in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
So the Berkeley Hundred settlers beat the Pilgrims by two years—but that was not the first thanksgiving either. Jamestown had been settled in 1607. The swampy lands, hostile Indians, and rugged conditions made survival a struggle. If it had not been for the leadership of Captain John Smith, who had arrived at that colony in chains, the colony would not have survived. It barely survived as it was. Of the original 409 colonists, only sixty were living in 1610. Those years were called “the Starving Time.” The colonists, holding in many cases the same religious beliefs as the Pilgrims in Plymouth Rock, prayed for help.
A ship soon appeared on the Atlantic horizon. It was bringing long needed food and supplies from England. A prayer service was then held giving thanks. This Jamestown celebration of 1610 occurred eleven years before Plymouth Rock.
The colony of Virginia trumps Plymouth Plantation, but neither the Berkeley Hundred colonists nor the Jamestown survivalists were the first here to celebrate thanksgiving. For that we have to go further south to Florida. Near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, there was a short-lived colony of French Huguenots. Like the Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, and others, the Huguenots who settled in North America came here primarily for religious convictions. While Florida was vaguely claimed by Spain, possession was, as the old saying goes, nine-tenths of the law. So these French pilgrims staked out their claim in the New World.
It was on June 30, 1564, that they celebrated the first recorded thanksgiving service in North America. Rene de Laudonniere, the leader of the colony, wrote, “We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness toward us.”
Our dear Yankee cousins must do the math. The Huguenots celebrated Thanksgiving fifty-seven years before William Bradford tasted his first bite of Thanksgiving grub. Thanksgiving is a Southern tradition. Started in the South, celebrated in the South, and perfected in the South, it is a Southern gift to the whole nation.
Nevertheless, we must caution ourselves, as well as our children, to be polite to our visitors. So, if any of “those people” mention the first Thanksgiving, meaning what was at least the fourth Thanksgiving, we must politely nod and ask, “Would you like some more cranberry sauce and giblet gravy?”
See More “Giving the South Credit for Thanksgiving” Images Here