BEFORE THE PILGRIMS
(The Washington Post, Sunday, November 23, 2003; p. B08)
As families come together this week, it is time to tell the truth about America's
For decades, children across America have donned the buckle-topped hats
and plain dress of the Puritan pilgrims who landed near Plymouth Rock in
1620. As the old story goes, William Bradford, Miles Standish and the rest of
the pilgrims held a harvest festival and were joined by their Indian friends,
Samoset and Squanto, in 1621. Thankful for their safe journey and good
harvest, and in celebration of their friendship with the neighboring Indians,
the pilgrims feasted on turkey, venison, fish, berries and Indian corn meal.
This is a good and honorable story, but it was not America's first
Here, as Paul Harvey might say, is the rest of the story: America's first
Thanksgiving occurred in what is now Charles City County, Va., on land that
became part of the Berkeley Plantation on the James River. There, 38 men
landed after a 10-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the ship
Margaret. The London Company, which had sent the expedition, sent explicit
instructions for the settlers:
"Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for
plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as
a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."
On Dec. 4, 1619, a year before the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, the
first Thanksgiving was held at Berkeley Plantation as Capt. John Woodlief
and his band of settlers planted roots upriver from Jamestown in the growing
colony of Virginia and gave thanks for their good fortune.
In 1863, Thanksgiving became a national holiday. At that time there was no
official connection between Abraham Lincoln's proclamation and the 1621
event held in Massachusetts, as that would come later. The reasons for
affiliating our November holiday with the pilgrim feast and not the day of
thanksgiving observed by Capt. Woodlief and his men are uncertain. My good
friend Ross MacKenzie, who was raised in Illinois and now serves as the
editor of the editorial pages of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, surmised that
this myth is the result of a "northern bias." Shenandoah University history
professor Warren Hofstra says New England historians were just "quicker on
the jump." But in 1963, President John F. Kennedy recognized Virginia's claim
to the holiday in his 1963 Thanksgiving Proclamation and Berkeley Plantation
is proud to make the claim today.
Visitors at Berkeley Plantation can find a plaque on the plantation grounds
with the words of the London Company's instructions. The plantation was the
birthplace of Benjamin Harrison as well as the home of President William
Henry Harrison. It was also the site where Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield
composed the melody for "Taps" while camped on the grounds in 1862.
Berkeley Plantation is truly one of our nation's historical jewels, and an
important part of our Thanksgiving history.
Before the Pilgrims