The Berkeley Thanksgiving

It will be missed by no one on this side of the North Atlantic that Thanksgiving Day 2016 falls on Thursday. Yet, some Virginians mindful of another tradition already had their Thanksgiving a fortnight ago. They resent the hegemony of Massachusetts for the celebrated day because historical records prove they have precedence.

Thanksgiving memorial plaque
Thanksgiving memorial plaque

The claim originated in a 1619 voyage of 36 men onboard the Good Ship Margaret out of Bristol, England. It was a tub of only 35 feet, somewhat shorter than twice the length of my office at home, and yet it sailed across a stormy ocean for ten weeks to the Chesapeake Bay. After the last storm had flung itself on the vessel, the exhausted mariners steered it into the King James River to anchor off the appointed land, which became known as the Berkeley Hundred and is today the Berkeley Plantation.

The ship’s master, John Woodlief, had returned to England after surviving the Starving Times of 1609-10 at Jamestown Fort, some 25 miles downriver. It says something about him that he left home comforts to go back to the Virginia wilderness, and when he

Berkeley Plantation House
Berkeley Plantation

returned he was wiser than on the 1607 voyage which conveyed a mixture of idle gentlemen and press-ganged paupers, neither of whom were well-prepared for the rigors ahead. He recruited craftsmen with skills needed in the fragile colony they would help to build. His ship was filled to the gunwales with clothes, kitchen utensils, tools, weapons, Bibles and beads to trade with Indians, and a great many groceries—8,000 biscuits and loaves, 160 lb butter, 127 lb bacon and horsemeat, 60 bushels of peas, 20 bushels of wheat, 6 tons of cider and 5 ½ tons of beer (healthier than water).

The sponsors in London instructed Woodlief to hold a solemn service of thanksgiving as soon as they arrived at their destination. The prepared formula read: “We ordain that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantation, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Another Good Ship Margaret arrives November 6, 2016
Another Good Ship Margaret arrives November 6, 2016

A manuscript recording their voyage and first thanksgiving was lost until Dr. Lyon Tyler of the College of William & Mary rediscovered it in an old archive called the Nibley Papers in the New York Public Library. Virginians like to point out not only their claim for primacy, but that Thanksgiving Day was first instituted as an annual religious observance, unlike the one-off feast enjoyed by the Pilgrims at Plymouth, MA, with their new buddies from a local Indian tribe. Unfortunately, the Berkeley rite stopped after an Indian Uprising in 1622 until 1958 when the current owners of the property reinstated it.

The Berkeley Thanksgiving was celebrated this year on Sunday November 6. Large numbers of families spent most of the day at the estate under blue skies because the Indian summer was pushing back the advance of fall. Below the old plantation house in a

Re-enactors who struggled to sound English

meadow that rolls down to the waterside, there were games for families, food and craft stalls, replica encampments, a corn maze, candle dipping and doll making, parading and dancing, music and magic. We watched a re-enactment of Captain Woodlief and his men landing from a replica of the good ship and giving thanks for a safe passage. Nearby, Indians cheerfully stomped a Friendship Dance to the rhythm of drums, although I wondered if their ancestors were horrified to see Englishmen on their turf. The crowd joined in the Pledge of Allegiance (hand on heart), sang the National Anthem and, finally, the history of Berkeley was retold by the present owner and one of Woodlief’s descendants.

Even a cynical observer of seasonal festivals would agree this was a happy scene of people united in pride for their country and history. Who could imagine under that blue sky there were dark thoughts lurking behind smiles? But soon after we went home we cast votes in the General Election, which beat down memories from two days before and replaced beautiful unity with ugly partisanship. Something to think about when I say:



Carving for the Ages (Petroglyphs)

A slab of yellow sandstone larger than a dinner plate lay at the foot of an old maple tree close to a woodland trail in the Allegheny Mountains. The shadow of an inscription on its flat face made me pause for a closer look. It read:


There are several hundred cemeteries dotted across the county, but few of them are “official.” The county resists zoning laws, so private landowners can bury the dead in their own backyards. Casualties of war, especially the fallen enemy, were not always honored with ceremony or laid in consecrated ground but rolled into a hastily dug grave where they moldered from anonymity to invisibility. But if the memorial stone marked Billy’s grave, he had not been buried carelessly.

Federal troops were known to be stationed there during the Civil War. Probably they were involved in the fierce engagement with the Confederate Army at Droop Mountain in November of that year that swung in their favor. Perhaps Billy was mortally injured in the fight, or maybe he died of measles, which was claiming victims in both armies.

soldiers-gravestoneTo examine the lettering on the hard stone, which was probably made with a knife point, is to realize this was a tenderly made memorial amidst so much suffering and misery. Billy has long gone out of memory, and would have disappeared from notice if his platoon merely tied two sticks to make a wooden cross, but carving a rock gave the young man a greater longevity, at least in name. Had the inscriber chosen a softer rock, like my father’s first headstone, it would not be legible for long, but deep gouges in the stone preserved Billy’s biosketch for 150 years.

On an ancient route across a rocky plain in Anatolia, and near the town of İmamkullu, a Hittite paused to carve a boulder over 3,000 years ago. The images are worn but you can see a princely soldier and a god, as well as incomprehensible hieroglyphs. Petroglyphs are found the world over from prehistoric times, and if you want to leave a memorial to posterity never leave it in ink or paint, but carve it on rock. Hard rock!

I mused about Billy’s gravestone while I chipped away at a boulder on our property, some twenty miles across the county. It’s hard to explain the impulse for my first rock carving, although the boulder offered a flat, vertical surface decorated with several species of lichens with a mossy seat on top. It is beautiful, and it was irresistible even for a virgin of the rocks.rockwoodcarving72dpi

If I was an accomplished rocksmith with time on my hands I might have carved a noble, sphinx-like head of a Shawnee brave, because this was the tribe’s hunting ground. My ambition was far more modest, the mere cutting of eight letters under the eye of James Alexander Thom, a family member who carves wood when taking time out from writing historical novels. I won’t add my signature or even my initials, preferring the carver to remain anonymous and somewhat mysterious like Billy’s inscriber.

When the cerebral effort of design is finished and the repetitive work of execution begins, a different part of the brain seems to kick in. As the rational region relaxes, the imagination can take over for dreaming to the noisy accompaniment of chipping. I wonder if anyone will stop to ponder the inscription in future centuries and millennia? I guess they might need a translator to read the word, “ROCKWOOD.” And I try to imagine what will those people will look like and how much the environment will have changed. The struggle to look forward probably stretches the imagination as much as when they try to look back at me, or I try to picture the Hittite.

When I returned to Billy’s gravestone I met the landowner Tom, whose family has lived on the mountain since they came as pioneers in 1830. He restores old log cabins transplanted on the back of a big flat-bed truck from across the Alleghenies, even as far away as Pennsylvania. Billy may have known one of the cabins because it used to stand on Droop Mountain. They are far more comfortable after renovation with a new tin roof and stone chimney than for the families who built them, and make attractive rental properties for visitors. Few cabins survive on their original sites because wood quickly rots when they are no longer cared for and the roof falls in, whereas castles and cathedrals quarried out of rock in the mother country of Tom’s ancestors will endure for eons. Without conservationists like him there would be fewer testaments to the lives of struggling pioneers.

After chatting about how the logs were cut and chinked, I asked him about the memorial stone on his land. I could tell from his changed demeanor that he had news. “It’s not the original! After lying there so long, someone stole it fifteen years ago.” He found a stone to replace it and carved the tribute to Billy from memory. “It’s a pretty good replica,” he told me.

The memorial says something about the carver again, the second time around, but I blush at the notions expressed sometimes about Appalachian mountain men by ignorant outlanders. As an afterthought Tom said, “It’s a pity it wasn’t too big to be carried away,” which brought my boulder to mind.

Next Post: Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation

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