Four hundred years ago, the Pilgrims of Massachusetts held their first Thanksgiving.
Four hundred and two years ago, the first American Thanksgiving was held.
What’s the distinction? Read on.
Most Americans recall the story of the Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620 and arrived in what is now Massachusetts – although their original destination was Virginia. After a difficult year establishing Plymouth Colony, they held a Thanksgiving feast with the Native Americans who had been indispensable to the colony’s survival.
Without doubt, the Thanksgiving in Plymouth was an important event in American history. It simply wasn’t the first Thanksgiving.
A year before the Pilgrims departed for North America, a group of 35 settlers and their leader, Captain John Woodlief, set sail from England for the New World aboard a ship named the Margaret. They were bound for land in Virginia along the James River. This settlement would be known as Berkeley Hundred.
The Margaret departed Bristol, England, on September 16, 1619. The 35-foot-long ship took more than two months to cross the Atlantic, but its navigators, unlike the Mayflower’s, were accurate and arrived at the desired destination. It finally arrived in Chesapeake Bay on November 28. After lingering in that area for a few days, weathering a fierce storm, the Margaret arrived at Berkeley Hundred on December 4.
When the settlers disembarked, they knelt and Captain Woodlief prayed, offering words that had actually been provided by the Berkeley Company which funded the settlement: “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Unlike the Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621, there was no feast that year. Thanksgiving was celebrated the next year with the original and additional settlers. The idea that we should set aside time for an expression of gratitude for our blessings became an American ritual.
The Berkeley settlement only lasted a few years, not surviving a conflict with local Native Americans, and so its first Thanksgiving disappeared from the history books.
In 1931, William & Mary’s former president (and son of John Tyler, the ninth president of the United States under the Constitution) Dr. Lyon Tyler uncovered records of the first Thanksgiving. It entered our historical memory, but still lingers in the shadow of Plymouth. Sometimes people need to be reminded of Berkeley’s importance.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, a native of Massachusetts, began his Thanksgiving proclamation: “Over three centuries ago in Plymouth, on Massachusetts Bay, the Pilgrims established the custom of gathering together each year to express their gratitude to God . . .”
A former Virginia state senator named John J. Wicker Jr. (D-Richmond) contacted the White House to complain. He received a response from presidential aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “You are quite right. I can only plead unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff.”
That bias was checked in the following year’s Thanksgiving proclamation, which more accurately began: “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving.”
Much has changed since that first gathering at Berkeley Hundred. Those settlers offered thanks for crossing an ocean and arriving in a wilderness far from home. Today, most of us enjoy Thanksgiving surrounded by family in our home or that of a relative. The feast has become a centerpiece when Berkeley Hundred’s Thanksgiving was primarily a religious observance.
Nevertheless, in our yearly observance, we are still connected to that first Thanksgiving. Among the things we can be thankful for is the spirit that filled the early settlers in Virginia and in Massachusetts – their daring in leaving their homes, their persistence in enduring the hardships of life in the early settlements, and their foresight in establishing the institutions and customs that would build our great country.
So. as we have done in Virginia for 402 years, on this Thanksgiving, let us take stock of our blessings and together offer our gratitude for them to God.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, call my Abingdon office at (276) 525-1405, my Christiansburg office at (540) 381-5671, my Washington office at (202) 225-3861, or via email at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.