Pilgrim’s Pride

Think the first Thanksgiving happened in the Northeast? Think again. The first English-speaking observance of Thanksgiving occurred in 1619, on the site of what is now Berkeley Plantation. 

We Virginians have never been a boastful sort. But with all due respect to our Northern cousins this holiday season, we would like to set the record straight.

That’s because the conventional notion of the first American Thanksgiving—prudish Pilgrims feasting jovially with their Indian neighbors after scratching out a respectable yield from the rocky New England soil in the autumn of 1621—isn’t 100 percent accurate. Let’s just say hard times in America and the ups and downs of agriculture were old news by the time Myles Standish dined with the Wampanoags. The actual first English-speaking thanksgiving observance in the New World, much less pretentious than the Pilgrims’ autumn bash, happened right here in Virginia in 1619 on what is today the site of Berkeley Plantation—1,000 lush acres on the James River, 35 miles east of Richmond in Charles City County.

In 1619, the riverfront settlement was known as Berkeley Hundred—8,000 acres chartered by the Virginia Company of London, which had dispatched 38 hearty souls willing to take a stab at agriculture in the New World. Though the two-and-a-half-month voyage across the Atlantic was turbulent, all 38 men on board managed to arrive in one piece (no doubt succored by the five-and-a-half tons of beer also aboard). On December 4 of that year, they stepped off of their boat and into the thick woods of the Virginia colony. The Virginia Company had provided specific instructions for the voyagers: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia,” read the orders, “shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Captain John Woodlief, head of the expedition, strictly followed the guidelines. As their first act in this new land, Woodlief and the few dozen men under his command, simply, almost unremarkably, paused in acknowledgment. They said a prayer. Gave thanks. And that was that. Straightaway, they went about the business of building this new settlement from the ground up.

Was it a huge feast? Nope. These travel-weary adventurers probably didn’t have much food. Did they invite local Indians? No again. Up to that time, there had been an uneasy five-year-long peace between the cultures, but it’s unlikely that local Indians would have been up for a meet-and-greet with a new batch of Englishmen.

Nevertheless, the settlers’ invocation began a regular American tradition: acknowledging gratitude. 

The whole idea of a stuff-yourself-silly feast, which the Pilgrims did about two years later, wasn’t particularly original. No disrespect intended here; that they managed a bumper crop after a brutal winter is impressive. But harvest feasts are as old as agriculture, and humans, for many thousands of years, have celebrated the end of the growing season. The caloric blowout at your dinner table each November is an outgrowth of spreads your just-barely-civilized ancestors set out after a good year farming way back when. In that regard, the first American thanksgiving feast, if there ever was one, happened long before Europeans ever even set foot in America.

The Berkeley settlers’ simple gesture, however, was the first English-speaking ceremony repeated annually. The men thanked God that December, and the next one, and the next, all according to their charter. It was effectively written into law. And all indications are that they would have carried on the ritual were it not for the Indian Uprising of 1622, which wiped out all the Englishmen at Berkeley, and  the Virginia Company of London’s instructions to give thanks each year were lost.

The thanksgiving observance faded from memory for a few centuries until the Harrisons, one of the First Families of Virginia, acquired the property in the late 17th century and began large-scale agricultural operations there. The property has been known as Berkeley Plantation ever since. In 1726, Benjamin Harrison IV built the three-story brick mansion, which still stands majestically on Berkeley Plantation’s manicured grounds. The property went through a series of owners over the next centuries, but nevertheless figured prominently in several more historic episodes.

Photo by Susan Bolling

When the early settlement’s records—and the instructions for an annual thanksgiving—werediscovered in 1931, the Jamieson family, then the owners of Berkeley Plantation, didn’t skip a beat. They held a small family service every fall, and by the late 1950s, the Jamiesons, along with descendants of the colony’s original leader, Captain John Woodlief, resumed formal thanksgiving celebrations at Berkeley. By 1961, they had established an official yearly observance and created the nonprofit Virginia Thanksgiving Festival, which celebrated its 50th annual event in 2011. The day-long festival includes crafts, games and re-enactors, as well as a play depicting the settlers’ landing in 1619. Local Indians perform traditional dances; the whole affair oozes historic nostalgia. And, of course, the raison d’être—a prayer of thanksgiving—takes center stage.

But we’ll continue to let our friends in Massachusetts claim this holiday if it makes them feel good. Besides, thanksgiving is not Berkeley Plantation’s sole claim to fame—not by a long shot.

Almost immediately after it was established, Berkeley Hundred became a hub of good old American ingenuity. George Thorpe, an Anglican priest and one of the original venture’s organizers, lost no time making liquor. In 1621, he distilled corn mash, reputedly creating the first bourbon whiskey in America. Virginia Gentleman this was not. It was probably pretty crude, fermented with wild yeast. But, at least according to Thorpe, the brew was darn good, even preferable to English ale and, importantly, it eased the mental anguish of being so far from home.

Later that century, when the Berkeley property fell into the hands of the Harrisons, they promptly constructed one of the first commercial shipyards in America. Today at low tide along the waterfront, on a part of the grounds called Harrison’s Landing, you can still see the remains of pilings that once supported a 900-foot-long dock.

But shipbuilding was the least of the Harrisons’ legacy. They would eventually count among their progeny a signer of the Declaration of Independence and two presidents, including William Henry Harrison, who was born at Berkeley and was the first POTUS to die in office, expiring a mere 30 days after being sworn in. 

The Union army camped on Berkeley Plantation’s expansive grounds, and twice President Abraham Lincoln visited to “review the troops” (read: scold the timid General George McClellan).

Also to Berkeley’s credit goes the creation of the iconic tune played at military funerals—“Taps.” Here, 150 years ago, General Daniel Butterfield’s frustration with the stuffy “Lights Out” bugle call boiled over. Butterfield wanted something less official, something that sounded like a more natural order to hit the sack. He summoned his bugler, Oliver W. Norton, and together they created the haunting song. 

Malcolm Jamieson, 68, the current owner of Berkeley Plantation, sees his guardianship of such a historic property as a labor of love. “It’s always been a struggle to make it work,” he says, noting the tremendous upkeep the nearly-400-year-old plantation and its agricultural operations—a notoriously fickle pursuit—have required of his family for 107 years. “But this is part of a continuing dream, our dream. We’ll keep going until the last breath.” Yes, we Virginians know our rightful place in history, and we’re proud of it. That’s surely something to be thankful for. BerkeleyPlantation.com

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