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.
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
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.”
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
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: