November 21, 2005
The First Official Thanksgiving in America was in Virginia
Settlers held first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation on
December 4, 1619 — a year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth.
By Charles Miller / Richmond Times-Dispatch
Each first Sunday in November a Thanksgiving Festival is held at the Berkeley Plantation in accordance with documentation from 1619. The event fulfills instructions given to the 38 settlers who arrived on the banks of the James River at Berkeley Hundred as documented in the proclamation:
- “Wee ordaine that the 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.“
The settlers set sail in a ship called The Margaret from the Port of Bristol in England, where at the Berkeley Castle funding for the journey was supplied by landowners including Sir Richard Berkeley and William Throckmorton. Agriculture was going through difficult times and many people in the area wanted to start a new life for themselves in America, and so they joined the leaders Sir John Woodleefe, George Thorpe, and John Smyth, who had planned this remarkable and historic voyage. Although they encountered severe weather that delayed their journey, the landing on December 4, 1619, is well documented by the Virginia Company of London.
Charles Berkeley from the Berkeley Castle stressed in his speech for the 1994 Virginia First Thanksgiving Festival that “this was the first thanksgiving to be held on American soil but it was not officially recognized until President Kennedy’s term of office in the 1960s, as beforehand the Pilgrim Fathers were considered to have been the first American settlers to offer Thanksgiving. The Berkeleys in fact preceded them . . . .”
Former Virginia Governor Mills Godwin summarized the setting well in his 1981 remarks: “Berkeley has been a working plantation in Virginia since 1619, and a handsome brick manor house was built here early in the 18th Century. Here was born Benjamin Harrison, V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a post-Revolutionary Governor of Virginia, and his son, William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States. Today, while privately owned, Berkeley has been magnificently restored and is open to the public as one of America’s distinguished historic shrines.”
Plantation Welcomes Festivities
Malcolm and Grace Jamieson purchased the Berkeley Plantation in 1928, and their son Jamie and his family continue the well-known gracious hospitality to the many visitors each year for the re-enactment of the First Thanksgiving. Berkeley is open daily and offers beautiful vistas from its 10 acres of formal terraced boxwood gardens and lawn that extend a quarter-mile from the front door of the mansion to the banks of the James River.
Clifford Dowdey depicts Berkeley and other plantations in his book, The Great Plantation, as an entrepreneurial endeavor: “These personal domains were built by men who, whatever their weaknesses of the flesh, contained the same ingredients that have built large successes throughout the ages — ambition and energy, self-discipline and resourcefulness, and the power to conceive boldly. For the plantation was, above all things, a most bold concept: It was a private principality, a self-contained world that required a unique amalgam of talents of the very first order.”
Perhaps Dowdey’s remarks about Berkeley Plantation’s success can be attributed to the leadership of King James I. His plan established the Virginia Company of London and the Plymouth Company, indeed opportunities that offered changes in the economic model for England that led to new world adventures.
William J. Carl, III, in his comments at the festival two Sundays ago, alluded to the importance of Berkeley Plantation in our economic heritage and as a place that our Forefathers and Foremothers birthed our great nation. The legacies are innumerable, including a signer of the Declaration of Independence, birthplace and host of Presidents, and the composition of “Taps” by General Daniel Butterfield when he was stationed at Berkeley in 1862 with McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. So we honor the past but move forward to the future from this great place of history.
A Perpetual Celebration
As we express our gratitude at these Thanksgiving events, so we live out our words by offering thanks, remembering the past, and pledging to continue the great legacy of those before us who celebrated perpetually . . . and look forward to a great future in this free nation.
One of the attendees at this year’s festival, Peggy Alexander, not only praised Carl’s remarks but stated that the entire experience of being at Berkeley Plantation to celebrate the very first Thanksgiving was exceptionally enjoyable in an exquisite setting. Another visitor who came from Ohio remained in her seat to enjoy the historical environment long after the Chickahominy Indians ceased their dances.
I am a member of the Berkeley family through my mother’s lineage and feel the sense of history each time I visit Berkeley Plantation. Indeed, Berkeley Hundred remains a historic treasure in the life of the Commonwealth of Virginia and of the nation.
Charles Miller is president of Virginia First Thanksgiving Festival, Inc., the foundation responsible for the re-enactment of Berkeley Plantation’s annual Thanksgiving event.
Berkeley Plantation First Thanksgiving Festival
Celebrate the 1619 landing of the original colonists at Berkeley Plantation. Join us at the site of the First Official Thanksgiving in America, for a day dedicated to history, food, and fun with tours of the 1726 mansion, walks in the colorful autumn gardens and a formal living history program.
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