Thanksgiving is a day of traditions — some national, some personal to each family. If you truly want to be traditional, put away the turkey. In fact, put away all the food. And for goodness sake, take down off the refrigerator that drawing of a Pilgrim hat that Junior drew in school.
The first Thanksgiving wasn’t at Plymouth Rock. It was in Virginia. There may not have been any food and, if there was, it probably wasn’t very good and certainly wasn’t very plentiful. Gather ‘round, it’s time for some history.
Jamestown was founded in 1607. Some rough years followed. But the year 1619 was, as some of us learned in school, a “red-letter year.” That meant there was lots of stuff to memorize. Since it’s Thanksgiving, we’ll go easy on the politics, but some context is still in order.
In July 1619, Virginia elected the first House of Burgesses — the first legislative body in the New World, and the forerunner of today’s General Assembly (which in January will choose as its speaker someone named Eileen Filler-Corn, who would have been ineligible even to vote back then).
In August 1619, Virginia saw the first Africans set foot on shore. While it’s technically true they weren’t slaves — because there weren’t any laws dealing with slavery then — these unwilling immigrants weren’t free, either. These men and women were bought and sold, so they were treated as slaves even if no law spelled out the particulars.
In November 1619, the Virginia Company that was officially in charge of the colony declared its intention to ship a large number of women across the Atlantic. There had been women in Jamestown since 1608, but there numbers were few. That was about to change — although it would take until May 1620 before the first shipment of colonial mail-order brides arrived.
The point is, 1619 was a pretty eventful year in Virginia. One event that year, though, was overlooked for more than three centuries — the first Thanksgiving.
Our history sometimes glosses over the fact that Virginia was founded as a profit-making venture. It didn’t always live up to that billing (much like many a stock prospectus today). Still, there were rich men back in England who were willing to invest in hopes of getting even richer. Four of them met in London in the spring of 1618 and devised plans to settle a new town in Virginia, upriver from the somewhat disappointing investment of swampy Jamestown, where crops had been hard to grow. King James granted them 8,000 acres; it easy for the king to give away land he didn’t really control but hoped to. The four investors — William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe and John Smyth — next set about finding someone to do all the work. Perhaps to their astonishment, they found John Woodlief.
Woodlief had been an early settler at Jamestown. He was one of just 60 people who survived the horrific “starving time” of 1609-1610 when the food ran out and some settlers turned to cannibalizing the dead. Not surprisingly, Woodlief went back to England but, definitely surprisingly, he went back to Virginia, too, to bring more colonists. Woodlief was either a fool or a believer. For our purposes here today, he was a believer — in both the Virginia enterprise and the Almighty.
On Sept. 16, 1619, Woodlief captained a ship called The Margaret, as it sailed out of Bristol, England, with 35 future Virginians on board. Among the cargo: 127 pounds of bacon and horsemeat, 5 and a half tons of beer and 6,000 beads to trade with the natives. Priorities, man, priorities.
It was a rough passage. The men on board— and they were all men — prayed “almost constantly.” On Nov. 28, The Margaret sailed into the Chesapeake Bay. The sight of land brought only temporary joy, though. There were more storms, so severe they nearly sank the ship. It took another week for The Margaret to make its way up “the king’s river” — the James River — to the allotted three miles of waterfront land. On Dec. 4, the men finally reached their destination, a place we know today as Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County.
The men’s first order of business: Pray.
This was, truly, an order. The investors back in London had armed Woodlief with 10 written instructions. The first of those was: “We ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival . . . shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
This was two years before the Pilgrims.
To be fair, it was customary back then to declare days of “thanksgiving” for various events — but those were intermittent affairs. This one at Berkeley Plantation was the first regularly-scheduled holiday. We don’t know much else about that first Thanksgiving. We don’t even know if there was any food. Some Thanksgivings then were fast days. If the men did eat, their choice was likely the ship’s remaining rations or whatever could scavenge locally —so, umm, possibly that months-old horsemeat. And here you’re complaining about the tofu turkey that your vegan cousin insisted on.
The Berkeley Thanksgiving may have been first, but it didn’t last. Three years later, the natives launched an offensive against the people they considered illegal immigrants. On March 22, 1622, tribes operating under Chief Opechancanough raided the English settlements, massacring approximately one-quarter to one-third of the colony’s population, depending on whose estimates you want to believe. Opechancanough thought the English would leave entirely. Instead, they merely pulled back for awhile. Berkeley and other outlying settlements were abandoned —and the story of the first Thanksgiving was forgotten. But it wasn’t lost.
In 1931, the retired president of the College of William & Mary was working on a book about early Virginia. Lyon Tyler stumbled upon an obscure volume of papers recorded by one John Smith — not that John Smith, but another John Smith who was effectively the secretary for those four Berkeley investors back in England. Among those records was the reference to that first Thanksgiving.
The Pilgrims, it’s often said, simply had the better public relations. And, to be sure, they do have a good story to tell — cooperation between different peoples, all the rest. But the fact remains, the first official and regular Thanksgiving was in Virginia, even if it didn’t last very long.
Today, while you feast on whatever you’re feasting on, take a few moments to reflect on some brand-new Virginians who may not have feasted at all, but gave thanks anyway.