1619: When America Became America

Virginia explores the events of a pivotal year in history.

Illustration by Steve Stankiewicz

It’s time to set aside your construction paper hat and dried corn. The first documented English Thanksgiving in North America happened in Virginia in 1619, one year before the Pilgrims even arrived at Plymouth Rock. This first Thanksgiving lasted “10, 15 minutes,” according to Graham Woodlief, the president of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival. No Native Americans were invited, no women were present, and there’s scant evidence of turkeys or yams. The 36 settlers and 19 crewmen who participated had just endured a perilous two-and-a-half-month transatlantic journey to reach their 8,000-acre tract along the James River, at today’s Berkeley Plantation. No doubt most would have said thanks upon landing anyway, but the observance was corporately mandated.

“The order to give thanks came from the Berkeley Company,” says Woodlief. He is a descendent of Capt. John Woodlief, who oversaw the journey and observance, and had survived the “starving time” of 1609-10 at Jamestown Settlement, 41 miles downriver. “As far as we know, [they] did celebrate Thanksgiving over the next two years, until the Indian uprising that pretty much destroyed the settlement.”

Virginia Thanksgiving Festival

Photo by Christine Lockerby

American Evolution

The fact that most Americans don’t know about this first Thanksgiving or other historical milestones established in Virginia 400 years ago is what motivates James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation and author of two books on the Jamestown Settlement. “It isn’t just boasting, ‘We were first,’” he says, “but to talk about what took place during those years in Virginia that people have very little idea of. It’s history that can shape the future of the country.” 

Many voices, Horn’s among them, are talking about those historical milestones as part of a state-funded, yearlong campaign called American Evolution. The effort, spearheaded by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation on the directive of the Virginia General Assembly, is designed both to cement the Commonwealth’s heritage as America’s true birthplace and to highlight several pivotal events that took place in 1619 and, as Horn says, helped America start to look like America. Among them are that first Thanksgiving, the founding of the first legislature in the New World, and the arrivals of both women and Africans in the colony. 

Partnering with most of the state’s academic and historical institutions and numerous corporate sponsors, American Evolution will present exhibitions, symposiums, conferences, cultural showcases, cook-offs, film festivals, monument dedications, a downloadable app—even a new ballet performed by the prestigious Dance Theatre of Harlem. 

Fort Monroe

Photo by Karl Elchinger

Better PR

In many ways, American Evolution is a chance to correct history. “The outcome of the American Civil War was fundamental in boosting the New England version of history,” explains Horn. “Historians today don’t necessarily support that view of New England dominance, but the public awareness of our past is still heavily shaped by New England. And Thanksgiving has a lot to do with it, quite honestly.” 

Charleston College professor Joseph Kelly is the author of Marooned, a new book about Jamestown that looks at the venture from the lens of the common settler. He says that, up until 1850 or so, Virginia’s settlement was better known than Plymouth to most Americans. This was primarily thanks to hugely popular stories about the adventurous early settler John Smith and the Powhatan Indian princess Pocahontas. “There were stage plays about them and pop culture representing their stories,” says Kelly.

But in the 1840s, the manuscript of the Plymouth colony by William Bradford was rediscovered. “It had been lost from 1650 to 1840, and all of a sudden there were vivid portraits of the Pilgrims and what happened with the Mayflower and the first years of Massachusetts,” he says. “What had been faceless founding father Pilgrims became characters that were compelling.” 

“From the Revolution to late in the nineteenth century, New England was the arbiter, standard, and primary source of American culture,” historian James Axtell writes in his essay, “Historical Rivalry.” “Its poets, novelists, orators, historians, and textbook writers saw to it that Plymouth became and remained America’s ‘first’ and best-known colony.”

By the time the papers documenting the first Virginia Thanksgiving were discovered 88 years ago, generations of folklore about the Mayflower celebration in New England had taken root in the American consciousness, branding Thanksgiving as a feast in Massachusetts, not a religious observance in Virginia. President John F. Kennedy tried to bring some balance by recognizing both Virginia and Massachusetts in a 1963 speech, but Plymouth Rock is still firmly fixed in the nation’s imagination. 

“New England has had better PR,” Woodlief is fond of saying, especially since the historical (and tourist) focus in Virginia shifted from the first settlement at Jamestown to Colonial Williamsburg and the story of Independence. But, says Horn, facts are facts. “[The Pilgrims] were a group of separatists and religious zealots who left England and settled in a very small colony that remained, during its existence, a very small colony. It was not especially significant to the English at the time.”

Reenactment of the first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation.

Photo by Christine Lockerby 

First Modern Government

Although Jamestown was founded in 1607, 1619 was the year the first modern form of government was formed in the land—a General Assembly made up of representatives from each of the 11 English towns, outposts, and settlements then dotting Virginia’s landscape. This body met once a year in Jamestown’s Anglican church, the site of which was recently discovered by archaeologists. “It’s important to recognize that Jamestown was the first of the colonies to develop what we might say is the first modern, recognizable form of government,” says Horn. 

In honor of the first legislature, two special commemorative ceremonies will be held in Jamestown on July 30, and an international forum on the future of representative democracy will be held in Williamsburg on following days. Government officials from around the world will discuss the historic impact of democracy. Additional events in and around Charlottesville in May will reflect on the challenges of leadership and governance in the 21st century and convene experts to discuss aspects of the American presidency. “History is always about trying to understand who we are as a people and where we came from, and how that influences the present,” Horn says.

Fort Monroe

Photo by Bill Crabtree Jr.

America’s Original Start-up

“We’re also celebrating the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit [of the original settlers],” says Kathy Spangler, executive director of American Evolution, noting that Jamestown was established through a profit-seeking joint-stock venture called the Virginia Company. “We like to say that Virginia was America’s original start-up.”

That theme inspired one of American Evolution’s Signature Events.The Innovators Cup is a competition to showcase Virginia’s academic excellence and celebrate “innovation, technology, leadership and diversity of the future generation of ideas.” Young entrepreneurs representing their colleges or universities will compete for cash prizes and mentorships by presenting their business cases to a panel of industry experts as part of the Tom Tom Founders Festival in Charlottesville in April.

Historical interpreter at Jamestown Settlement in Williamsburg.

Photo courtesy of Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

No Women, No Colony

Even as Virginia prepares to explore the past, the full story of what happened 400 years ago is still being uncovered and interpreted. “We have an incomplete written record,” notes Beverly “Bly” Straube, a curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. “One always hopes to find that dusty old trunk in some earl’s attic. But the documents we have are not nearly as democratic as the trash that was thrown away.” 

Straube was part of the initial team that helped locate the remains of the lost fort of Jamestown more than 20 years ago (it was presumed to have washed away). She’s gone through more than a million bits and shards from the original site, discovering and piecing together breastplates, oil lamps, animal bones, luggage tags, pottery—you name it. That trash and rubble is the only evidence of the fort’s women, soldiers, and craftspeople, documenting “the people who couldn’t write or who weren’t important enough or who never did anything naughty,” she says. “Their presence is unknown except for what’s been found in the ground.” The discoveries include not only grisly confirmation of cannibalism during Jamestown’s early “starving time,” but the delicate work of goldsmiths, perfumers, tailors, glassmakers, and carpenters, as well as traces of Native American life within the fort. “It’s largely through the excavation work that we can even tell the story of women in Jamestown,” Straube says. “If this anniversary had happened 30 years ago, we may not have been able to do it.”

And those unknown women were critical to the colony’s success. By 1619, Virginia was floundering. Colonists were deserting to live with Native Americans or striking out on their own. The Virginia Company recruited English women as a last-chance measure. “With women, you start having children, and families are growing, and you have a vested stake in the place,” says Straube. “Because you were given land, as well. …. Any man who married one of these brides was promised a servant and would also get land.” 

“We know that desertion did happen,” says Katherine Gruber, curator of the Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia exhibition. “There are laws that say that men cannot retreat to go live with the Indians, so we know that if it’s a law, if it’s illegal, that it’s been tried.” The Virginia Company spent considerable resources recruiting middle-class English women. “That’s an indication,” she says, “that Virginia was not going to be a success unless there were women there to, as one put it, ‘make the men more settled.’” 

“No women, no colony,” Horn echoes. “The Virginia Company was very much aware, by 1619, that without respectable women finding their way to the colony, it would never grow.” 

To explore the history and impact of women in the colony, Jamestown Settlement is hosting the yearlong Tenacity exhibition and a series of related programs. American Evolution will celebrate the contributions and achievements of women with a two-day summit in October.

The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project.

Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation

Africans’ Arrival

Not much is known about the first Africans to arrive in the New World, says superintendent Terry Brown of the National Park Service, another American Evolution participant. An English ship called the White Lion landed in 1619 at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe, and brought 20-odd men, captured from a Spanish slave ship. “We know that a few of them were taken into the home of Commander William Tuckerin Hampton, and some of their descendants are still here. There are excavation efforts occurring at his home,” says Brown. 

The ship also brought the first documented African woman, named Isabella. She and her husband, Anthony, became the parents of the first child of African lineage in the colony, William, born in 1624. Another African woman, Angelo (or Angela), also arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Gruber explains, “We don’t know exactly what Angelo’s status was. The jury is still out on where she came from. She’s listed as living in the house of the Pierces and comes to Jamestown in 1619, off of The Treasurer.”

Were these first Africans slaves or indentured servants? “To some, that’s a very important question,” says Brown. “There were various types of indentured servitude, but the way John Rolfe writes about the first Africans makes me think they were [slaves].” He notes that while slavery existed around the world, there was no structure for it in the colony. “They convened the first legislature in 1619, but a system of slavery wasn’t codified until later in the 1600s.” 

The National Park Service has planned gospel concerts, theater productions, seminars, and other events at Fort Monroe, culminating in a multi-day African Landing commemoration in August. “When people mention the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty, I want them to mention Fort Monroe,” says Brown. “You have American Indians here, Captains Newport and Smith landed here on their way to Jamestown, you have the first enslaved Africans arriving.… It is truly America’s story.”

“History can be a compelling factor to change,” says Norfolk State University professor Dr. Colita Fairfax, co-chair of the Hampton 2019 Commemorative Commission, which has planned its own series of anniversary events, conferences, and symposiums. In anticipation, the city sponsored special workshops for the city’s K-12 teachers to enhance their knowledge of the first Africans’ arrival and Native American history. “I was once told that the job of a historian is to answer the question, ‘Why?’ and I believe that, throughout the decades, the answers to the question have been from one group’s perspective. But we can’t have a watered-down version of this history.”

“There is a different perspective to all of this,” Brown echoes. “History is constantly evolving, and historians have to evolve, too. … America’s great because we have had some incredibly difficult history, and we still came out on the positive side. We’re a very young republic. … We’re just learning now how to be a nation, and learning this history will help get us there.”

Dancers at the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival.

Photo by Christine Lockerby

Already Here

With all of the “firsts” being celebrated in 2019, what of the Native Americans, including the descendants of Chief Powhatan’s kingdom? “The story of the Native Americans is central and is threaded throughout all of these stories,” says American Evolution’s Kathy Spangler.

“I think it’s great what they’re doing,” says Pamunkey Indian Tribal Chief Robert Gray, mentioning the Pocahontas Reframed Film Festival in November in Richmond and a September “Making of America” summit at Norfolk State University. “We haven’t been a big part of planning [American Evolution], but I’m hoping it’s successful for them.” 

The chief, who notes that the Pamunkey were among the coastal tribes that engaged with the English 400 years ago, says that he looks forward to attending some of the events. “It gives us all a chance to discuss those things that happened and learn from each other. I think everybody can learn something from the experiences of other people.”  

The Hampton Commemorative Commission will sponsor a two-day symposium in April that explores Native American heritage. “We intend to elucidate for people their customs, their language, their history, their perspective, and that’s not really been highlighted as well as it should have,” says Fairfax.  

“[The Tenacity exhibition] is not just about the women who came to Virginia, it’s also about the women who were already here,” says Gruber. “There were Powhatan women that were already here interacting, and they’d been here a lot longer than English men have. And that’s why they are the first women you meet when you walk in the gallery.” 

The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project.

Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation

Giving Thanks

One of the last events of the year will be the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County. A reenactment of the first Thanksgiving has been held on the first Sunday in November every year since 1958. In addition to the ceremony itself, the day promises many of the observances that we recognize from New England customs—food, activities—as well as traditional dances and music from local Chickahominy tribes. This anniversary year will offer the best chance yet to refocus history, Graham Woodlief says. “We had 3,350 visitors [in 2018], from 24 different states. People are beginning to get the word … [and] it’s making people think a little bit about Thanksgiving and what it means.” 


This article originally appeared in our April 2019 issue.

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