To the Editor:
Our Virginia forebears were the first English-speaking people who celebrated and established the custom of celebrating Thanksgiving annually on these shores. Our 1619 Thanksgiving celebration at Berkeley Hundred, Va., was observed before the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration, although most textbooks erroneously accord them that honor. Also, Alexandria’s George Washington was the first President to set aside a special day for the nation to offer Thanksgiving to God.
On Dec. 4, 1619, when the Margaret, sailing from Bristol, England, reached her destination 20 miles upstream from Jamestown at Berkeley Hundred, now Berkeley Plantation, Captain John Woodliffe opened the sealed orders given him in London. They directed that the first act of those 38 settlers and eight crewmen should be to have a religious service of thanksgiving to God for their safe arrival, and the settlers and crew did so. Indians, curious about the newcomers and familiar with the settlers and religious services at Jamestown, probably watched. Furthermore, Woodliffe’s orders provided that the day of the ship’s arrival was to be “yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
In a 1622 surprise attack, Indians massacred almost everyone at the Berkeley settlement. After that tragedy the area was abandoned, and the Jamestown settlers did not feel like celebrating. After many years colonists returned to the site, and the Harrison family built a beautiful home there, Berkeley Plantation. Notable family members included Benjamin Harrison IV, signer of the Declaration of Independence; his grandson President William Henry Harrison; and his grandson President Benjamin Harrison. Both presidents wrote their Inaugural Addresses at Berkeley. Today Berkeley is open to the public, there is a marker on the James River shore where the 1619 Thanksgiving was held, and there is an annual historical reenactment of the first thanksgiving at the original site.
The Pilgrims arrived in December 1620. They had intended to come to Virginia, but heavy winds blew them off course. They starved for the first year, so were very grateful for their bountiful harvest in 1621. The Pilgrim Hall website notes “In … 1621, the 53 surviving Pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest, as was the English custom…. (It was a social occasion, a festival of food.) The Pilgrims did not call this harvest festival a "Thanksgiving," although they did give thanks to God. To them, a Day of Thanksgiving was purely religious. Their first recorded religious Day of Thanksgiving was held in 1623 in response to a providential rainfall.”
Alexandrians have a notable tie to our Thanksgiving celebration. George Washington’s first Presidential proclamation (issued on Oct. 3, 1789) called for day of public thanksgiving, fasting (not feasting) and prayer on Thursday, Nov. 2, for the many blessings God had bestowed on our country, asking pardon for our national transgressions, and seeking His aid in our future endeavors. It is appropriate for us to celebrate, like our predecessors, by attending a thanksgiving service to God as well as feasting and fun with family and friends.
We Virginians are proud to tell our story and claim our rightful heritage as the first English-speaking people to celebrate an annual public thanksgiving for our personal blessings as well as those to our community and nation.
Ellen Latane Tabb