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Berkeley Plantation Hosts Virginia Thanksgiving Festival

Bob Ruegsegger

On the first Sunday in November, a host of Virginians, descendants of English colonists, Native Americans, and African slaves, assembles at Berkeley Plantation to express their thankfulness for America’s blessings.

“If you love Virginia history, then you will love this event,” observed Peggy DeBellis Bruce, president of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival. “I think it’s important to make sure that we don’t forget our history,” Bruce added.

Thanksgiving is observed at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County,Virginia three weeks sooner than the holiday is celebrated in the rest of nation to commemorate the first official annually designated Thanksgiving observance in America.

“It’s a very special thing to us. We love this land, and we try to be good stewards of it and make it better,” said Malcolm Jamieson, the owner of the thousand acre plantation “It’s part of our heritage; it’s part of the history of this country,” he said. “We think that it’s important, particularly with youngsters, to learn something about the history of this great country,” Jamieson added.

At this site on December 4,1619, English colonists led by Captain John Woodlief arrived in Virginia aboard the ship Margaret and established a settlement on this hallowed historic ground. Thirty-eight men were put ashore in small boats. Upon landing, they placed their personal belongings on the ground and silently surveyed the woods that enveloped them. At Woodlief’s command, the travel-weary colonists obediently knelt on the dried grass to offer a prayer of thanksgiving.

Specific orders in their charter directed them to “ordaine the day of our ship’s arrivall at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia” as a day of Thanksgiving. In addition, their orders further stipulated that the observance “shall yearly and perpetually [be] kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” After the conclusion of the religious observance, Captain Woodlief and his men began in earnest to construct a storehouse and assembly hall. There was no time for festivities.

This annual Thanksgiving observance continued to be held until the settlement was wiped out in what some historians have dubbed the Indian uprising of 1622. While the English regarded the bloody, colony-wide attack as a massacre, the indigenous people [Native Americans] viewed the violence as a necessary, well-coordinated assault intended to drive the English invaders from their homeland.

That initial Thanksgiving religious observance established in 1619 at Berkeley died with the Virginia colonists who were slain during the bloody massacre or intrepid uprising — depending on one’s historical-cultural perspective. For hundreds of years, that first Thanksgiving observance was completely forgotten until the historic record was discovered in the Smyth of Nibley papers in the New York State Library.

Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, retired president of William & Mary and son of President John Tyler, discovered information that led him to the original proclamation while doing historical research on a book about early Virginia history. The documentation indicated conclusively that Virginia had a rightful claim to hosting the first official Thanksgiving in America.

“There in those records were not only the sealed orders that upon arriving they were to have a religious service of Thanksgiving, but Captain Woodlief’s signed compliance that he had indeed done that,” recalled Malcolm Jamieson. “That was ironclad documentation,” he observed.

The modern day Thanksgiving tradition at Berkeley began during Governor Mills Godwin’s first term as the Old Dominion’s chief executive. Jamieson recalled that the Virginia legislature sent a delegation to the Kennedy White House to secure formal acknowledgement that Virginia had a legitimate claim to the first official Thanksgiving in English-speaking America. A letter was forthcoming from the office of Arthur Schlesinger, presidential special assistant and speech writer, observing that although Virginia’s claim to the first Thanksgiving appeared valid, it made little difference because America would continue to celebrate the tradition that began at Plymouth. “We’re trying to set record straight,” smiled Jamieson.

Charles Miller, board member with the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival, has been associated with the event at Berkeley Plantation for years. “I’m part of the Berkeley clan. That’s how I got pulled into this,” laughed Miller. “The Berkeley’s were the ones who financed the ship Margaret to come here in 1619,” said Miller. “They financed it at the Berkeley Castle in Berkeley, England which is near Bristol where the ship sailed from,” he added.

“When I came here for the first time I was just thrilled and happy. I appreciated everything that everyone had done,” recalled Susan Woodlief Williams of Salem, Virginia. “I was a Woodlief descendent and didn’t know a thing about him,” she said. “I just learned about this four [five] years ago. My father knew nothing about this.”

Long before Woodlief and his charges established Berkeley Plantation in the place the English eventually named Charles City County, Wayne Adkins’ ancestors in the Chickahominy tribe inhabited the area, fished the rivers, hunted the forests, and cultivated the land.

“We were giving thanks even before there was an official Thanksgiving because it was part of what we did every day. We also did it at this time of year after all of our crops were harvested,” said Adkins who is the second assistant chief of his tribe. “There was always a harvest celebration with food and dance; food and dance were very important to our culture,” he said. “It was our way of Thanksgiving. You can call it anything you want It was Thanksgiving for us. We didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was,” Adkins concluded.

James Curtis, a tour guide-historian at Berkeley Plantation, estimated that the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival attracts an average of seven to eight hundred people annually. “It’s a great family event. People bring blankets and picnics,” he said. “They come out here to spend the day and enjoy the nice fall weather, the scenery, and the program,” noted Curtis. “There’s no charge for the program at all. We do it every year,” he added.

Note: Berkeley Plantation has traditionally hosted the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival on the first Sunday in November. This year’s commemorative event will be held on Sunday, November 2nd, 2008 from 12:00 to 4:00. For more information regarding the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival, call 1-888-466-6018 toll free.

* Berkeley Plantation claims the honor of hosting the first official Thanksgiving in English speaking America on December 4, 1619. This plaque was installed on the 350th anniversary of the historical event by The National Society Daughters of the American Colonists in 1969.

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