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:



Thanks given for Wild Turkey

Christmas has the sound of carols while July Fourth the sight of fireworks, but only one American holiday has an aroma. A breeze of savory turkey from the kitchen is the essence of Thanksgiving. How it came to be associated is something of a mystery, but it’s a nice compensation for losing the vote to bald eagles when America chose its national bird.

wild turkeyWe can’t be sure if they were on the menu at the very first Thanksgiving in the 1600s. Even the date and place of that celebration is contested. According to a tale often told, Thanksgiving began when persecuted Puritans arriving in God’s land from England celebrated their first harvest with new American Indian friends in Massachusetts. It is a story that nicely chimes with the proud national history we like to tell children.

But some twenty miles up the James River in Virginia, at the Berkeley Plantation (formerly Berkeley Hundred), a plaque commemorates a thanksgiving service in December 1619, a full year before the first Pilgrim Father stepped off the Mayflower.

Wee ordaine that the 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.

The Berkeley bunch of rugged pioneers was more in tune with profit than piety, and they even had an entrepreneurial clergyman. According to legend, their Episcopal priest distilled the first bourbon whiskey from Indian corn in 1621—though the claim attracts a spirited rebuff from patriotic Kentuckians. But there can be no doubt that the colonists needed southern comfort, because the following year they were raided by Indians and the survivors had to be evacuated to the fort at Jamestown. Thanksgiving was suspended at Berkeley for some years, leaving the northern upstarts with the reputation of an honored meal in perpetuity.

The colonists would say that Thanksgiving turkeys today are a pale, vast, and grotesque transmogrification of their wild relatives that fatten naturally on mast in the fall woods. Wild turkey was daily fare for them, much as rabbit was for their relatives in England. I imagine children complaining when mothers served it for the umpteenth time. It requires rarity and high market price for us to value delicacies. Over-hunting brought a turnabout, although in the past century wild turkeys have become common again through conservation efforts and reintroduction to where they had been extirpated.

We see them rustling through leaf litter in woods, gleaning fields, and even waddling along roadsides, with their disproportionately tiny heads bobbing constantly. If you come within a couple of hundred feet of them, you may be surprised how shy they are and the speed with which they vanish in a racket of whirring feathers. Remember, they are flying carcasses with heavy payloads of breast meat.

They know when it is hunting season, and gather in small parties of adults and jakes because the more eyes the better. There were thirteen in our woods last week, but if they had bigger brains they would know it’s an unlucky number.

A Merry Thanksgiving to all my American readers.

Next Post: A Zoo to Go

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