The first Thanksgiving isn’t what you think.

No grand feast. No friendly Native Americans. And no turkey.

Just settlers gathering to pray 75 days after landing in a dangerous place following a rough and stormy trans-Atlantic trip.

That first Thanksgiving took place at today’s Berkeley Plantation on the banks of Virginia’s James River after 38 British settlers landed on Dec. 4, 1619, two years before the more famous festivities in Plymouth, Mass. They celebrated “a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God,” reading from the Book of Common Prayer. There was no grand meal. In fact, they likely fasted, a common practice during religious days in those times.

“Initially, a day of thanksgiving was something done by the church,” says Frank Clark, who supervises Historic Foodways, a Colonial Williamsburg department. “It was a religious thing. They would spend the day fasting and praying. There really is not a meal associated with it.”

They were following orders of the London-based Berkeley Company, which purchased 8,000 acres between what is now Williamsburg and Richmond to build a community of farms, storehouses, and homes. The company declared their arrival day must be yearly and perpetually kept holy. They followed those orders for two years until the native Powhatans attacked Berkeley on March 22, 1622, killing 347 people in several settlements.

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