Put away your funny-looking Pilgrim hats, and go for the Virginia planter outfit instead: The first official Thanksgiving holiday was a Southern one, notwithstanding New England’s claim to the contrary for the past century and a half. I know it will take some doing, but forget what you learned in kindergarten: The year was 1619, not 1620; the ship was the Margaret, not the Mayflower; and it’s the Berkeley Plantation, not Plymouth Plantation.
The Berkeley Hundred in the Colony of Virginia was a venture financed by the London Company and included 8,000 lush and fertile acres twenty miles up the James River from first-English-settlement Jamestown. The autumn of 1619 thirty-eight English craftsmen, smiths, carpenters, and “adventurers” made their way across the savage Atlantic in a thirty-five-foot ship packed with supplies, tools, and more rats than men. Captain John Woodlief, leader of the expedition, carried sealed orders from the London Company officers.
As soon as the Good Ship Margaret had settled her two-and-a-half-month journey in front of Berkeley’s front door steps, the sea-battered settlers clambered ashore, and the orders were opened:
Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacion in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.
After seventy-five days on a storm-tossed sea, the Berkeley men were happy to comply and with a hearty amen. So there you go—the first official annually-observed Thanksgiving holiday in America was established on Virginia soil December 4, 1619. That predates the Plymouth Pilgrim feast, which was a one-time deal anyway, by nearly two years. In the contest for First Thanksgiving holiday rights, the South wins!
But not unlike their Pilgrim neighbors to the north, the Berkeley folks had a rough go of it from the first. The New World-foundation builders soon got busy with the adventurer-planter-colonist life they had come to America for. But, as determined pioneers over the next two hundred years would learn, life on the frontier included getting along (or not) with the natives.
In Virginia, peace had been bought with the marriage of King Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas to Englishman John Rolfe in 1614. But when Powhatan died in 1618, his brother and heir Opechancanough adopted a new send-the-troublesome-English-back-to-England policy and in 1622 launched a massacre all up and down the James River, destroying entire communities and killing about one third of the colony’s population. Consequently, life at Berkeley Hundred was suspended for a time—and so was the annual observance of Berkeley’s Virginia Thanksgiving.
Fast-forward to 1931. Lyon Tyler, United States President John Tyler’s son and retired president himself of William and Mary College, discovered the original chronicles of the whole Berkeley genesis and passed the history on to Malcolm Jamieson, then-proprietor of Berkeley Plantation. Twenty-seven years later in 1958 Berkeley Plantation began fulfilling the London-Company-ordained annual Thanksgiving once again—and they have been faithfully observing it ever since.
In 1962 Virginia State Senator John Wicker wrote Massachusetts-born President John F. Kennedy, asking why Massachusetts alone was mentioned in the President’s Thanksgiving Proclamation when the historical evidence was clear that Virginia had held Thanksgiving celebrations prior to that of the famed Pilgrims. Author and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., responded on behalf of the President, citing “unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff” as the reason for the “error.” The following year’s Thanksgiving Proclamation—given less than three weeks before Kennedy’s assassination—saw the error amended: “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of Thanksgiving.”
At Thanksgiving time six years later the nation’s legislature entered into the Congressional Record the story of Virginia’s First Thanksgiving, its praise for the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival held annually at Berkeley Plantation, and a Thanksgiving Prayer of their own, remembering Virginian fathers who courageously helped establish a home for the millions who followed. We would do well to do at least as much.
So we can keep the turkey and sweet potato casserole, the Rockwellian family gathered ’round the white-cloth’d table full of happy and fattening feasting fodder—and we should certainly keep a place in the family thanks for the Mayflower alongside the Good Ship Margaret. But perhaps our Southern psyche has for too long been exclusively dominated by black buckle-hats and dove-gray goodwife bonnets. The historical precedent for a civil holiday dedicated to thanks was actually set among the reeds of a James River plantation by some of Virginia’s finest root and stock.
Maybe it’s time to rewrite the kindergarten books to match.