The “First” Thanksgiving
Alexandria, VA – “Berkeley claims to be the site of America’s first official Thanksgiving. The good folks here say that the founders of Berkeley held their celebration before the Pilgrims had even left port. As you can imagine, this version of events is not very popular up north.”
– President George W. Bush
20 November 2007
Inevitably, this month young school children will don “Pilgrim” hats, smocks, buckle shoes, knee stockings, and other school children dressed as Native Americans (1) to sit together at a bountiful dinner table to reenact the first Thanksgiving celebration in the “New World.” It will be attended by doting, attentive, adoring parents who will be confused if the story turns out to be at Berkley Plantation on the James River, 25 miles south of Richmond.
Why? Because we Boomers have believed for years that it happened at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and included something about a rock, turkey, corn, maze, and happy original Americans and English settlers all stuffing themselves and singing “Kumbayah.”
Almost 20 years before the Mayflower ever parked at Plymouth, a colony of English settlers landed at what is now called Jamestown. (2) Things didn’t go so great for these hearty folks, and during the “Starving Time” (1609-10), the 300 of them that huddled in the fort dwindled to a group of 60 by the spring thaw.
Unbeknownst to most of England, news from the settlers didn’t always get to the right folks. Re-supply ships sometimes did make it through, and to keep the Powhatans from attacking the settlers, John Rolfe married Pocahontas, (3) the favored daughter of Chief Powhatan. It was a first-of-its-kind political coup that settled things down for a while.
Meanwhile, across the pond, foreshadowing America’s growing entrepreneurial culture, four Gloucestershire men got together to capitalize on the set of unfortunate events back in Virginia and formed the Berkely Company. They were William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe, and John Smyth (4). As frequently is the case in business, three were related by blood or marriage. Smyth became a family member 18 years later when one of his daughters married Thorpe’s son and set the stage for the future rise of the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, and Harrimans. King James I bestowed 8,000 acres comprising three miles of waterfront property on the James River to the Berkley Company, and the wheels of modern American commerce were set in motion.
On September 4, 1619, the Berkley Board of Directors commissioned John Woodlief as captain of the expedition because he had great street cred, having survived the Starving Time and because he knew the neighborhood. They leased the 35-foot ship Margaret and, according to the Berkeley Plantation website, provisioned her with “8,000 biscuits and bread, 160 pounds of butter, 127 pounds of bacon and horsemeat, 60 bushels of peas, 20 bushels of wheat, 6 tons of cider, 15 gallons of aqua vitae, and 5 ½ tons of beer.” (5) The ship carried five crew members and 38 settlers across the turbulent Atlantic to arrive at what is now Berkeley Plantation on 4 December 1619.
After wading ashore, they opened sealed orders from the Berkley Company dudes to be read upon arrival. The orders said that their arrival day was to “be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” And instead of a voracious meal, given the lack of provisions after a two-month sea voyage, they most likely sat down to a local fare of ham and oysters.
Compared to past expeditions, things went along smoothly until 22 March 1622 when the Powhatans figured out what these English settlers were really up to—expanding their enterprise (i.e., land) and wanting to “civilize” them—so they attacked Berkeley and other English settlements in the area and killed 347. In another first of its kind in American business, Berkeley was abandoned as a financial risk.
The true history of the First Thanksgiving disappeared for over 300 years until Dr. Lyon Tyler, retired president of William and Mary and son of President John Tyler, uncovered the Nibley Papers at the New York Public Library in 1931 while researching a book on Virginia. The trove of documents was written by John Smyth (6) of Nibley, Gloucestershire. He researched the settlement of Virginia from 1609 to 1622 and chronicled the events of the first Thanksgiving in 1619.
A few centuries later, Graham Woodlief, a direct descendant of Captain Woodlief, was asked his opinion about how the much-touted Massachusetts claim of the first Thanksgiving came about. He said, “They had better PR than we did.”
To further Virginia’s cause, Virginia State Senator John J. Wicker, Jr. even went on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in full 17th-century settler’s costume to plead Virginia’s case. He also sent a telegram to President Kennedy complaining about Kennedy’s 1962 Thanksgiving message, which claimed Massachusetts was first. Wicker was answered by presidential advisor and historian Arthur Schlesinger, “The President has asked me to reply to your telegram… You are quite right, and I can only plead an unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff… I can assure you the error will not be repeated in the future.”
On 24 November 1969, Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. of Virginia, rose in the Senate chamber and had the following entered into the Congressional Record: (7)
Mr. President, at Berkeley Plantation on the James River in Virginia, a crowd estimated at 5,000 persons yesterday, Sunday, November 23,  gathered to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the first official Thanksgiving in America. …The first official Thanksgiving in America took place at Berkeley Plantation, Va., in December 1619. …The Thanksgiving prayer delivered by the Reverend Carter H. Harrison (8) … I ask unanimous consent that the Thanksgiving prayer be printed in the RECORD. There being no objection, the Thanksgiving Prayer was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:
Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Embue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There. I hope that sets the record straight. Now, pass the mashed potatoes.
(1) These days I am really confused as to the appropriate title of people who were here in the Americas before any of those pesky, entrepreneurial, and often cruel Europeans arrived. I know we now have Indigenous People’s Day, but that followed the previous titles of Aboriginals, Native Americans, and Indians. Please accept my apologies in advance for having lost track of the most recent “correct” title.
(2) Then written “Jamestowne.” The “e” was important back then just as the “ou” in “flavour” and “behaviour” were but later abolished by President Teddy Roosevelt as unnecessary or redundant. Who says Executive Orders are silly?
(3) She was reportedly beautiful and handy because of her language skills, but contrary to the Disney fable, didn’t sing like Judy Kuhn.
(4) Not to be confused with the other John Smith. The spelling is different as well as occupations. The Smyths of England back then were much like the Smiths of the U.S. today.
(5) Water was not stocked aboard. It was determined that it would not last a 2-month ocean voyage, hence the adult beverages. Aqua Vitae is a liquor akin to Brandy. Clearly, Woodlief understood soldiers, sailors, and adventurers.
(6) Smyth? You’re kidding. Pay attention.
(7)Volume 115, Number 194.
(8) You guessed it –Carter Harrison was a direct descendant of William Henry Harrison and scores of other famous Virginians like Robert “King” Carter of Carter’s Grove Plantation in Williamsburg.
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