BERKELEY HUNDRED — Virginia wants you to know that nearly two years before the Pilgrims invented cranberry sauce at Plymouth Rock, the real first English Thanksgiving took place here, along the James River.
In particular, Virginia wants New England to know that. So last year, the folks marketing the 400th anniversary of a series of major Virginia historical events sent postcards to state and federal lawmakers in Massachusetts.
“We didn’t receive one,” said Kathy Spangler, executive director of American Evolution, the commemorative group set up by Virginia’s General Assembly.
No matter. Those puritans know it in their buckled-up hearts. “Doubtless there was a Thanksgiving service that happened at Berkeley in 1619,” said Plimoth Plantation chief historian Richard Pickering, acknowledging the Pilgrim Thanksgiving was not until 1621.
But the Virginia event, he added, “did not linger in the American memory.”
Cutting words, but also true.
It’s a situation Virginia is aiming to fix this year as it wraps up commemorations of national firsts, some of which generated their own controversies.
President Trump nearly pushed state Democrats to another revolution when he appeared at Jamestown in July, marking the first meeting of the House of Burgesses in 1619. A month later, Virginia sparked a national conversation on race by observing the 400th anniversary of the first Africans being brought to the English colony at Old Point Comfort. The state invited Queen Latifah to headline a session in Richmond on the first groups of women settlers, who also came in 1619.
But none of those events was as historically debatable as the final commemoration, planned for Wednesday, is: a celebration, in Jamestown, of the first official English Thanksgiving.
It’s not that historians question whether the event took place. It’s more the significance — the national cultural relevance — is about as solid as a holiday Jell-O casserole.
Here’s what’s known: By 1618, Jamestown had been struggling for 11 years. A group of investors petitioned King James for land several miles upriver that was better suited for farming. They called it Berkeley Hundred.
Capt. John Woodlief and 35 settlers set out from England in September 1619, crossing the Atlantic during hurricane season on a 35-foot ship. By the time they arrived, on Dec. 4, they had survived terrible storms and suffering.
You bet they were thankful.
“We ordaine that this 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,” Woodlief prayed as the settlers knelt on shore.
They repeated the ritual on that date for the next two years.
Until, in 1622, the local indigenous people killed most of them.
Berkeley was eventually resettled as a plantation that produced both a signer of the Declaration of Independence (Benjamin Harrison V) and a president (William Henry Harrison). But the story of that first Thanksgiving was forgotten.
It took the son of a blue-blooded neighbor — Lyon Tyler, an academic and writer from nearby Sherwood Forest plantation, whose father was President John Tyler — to unearth the tale in a library in the early part of the 20th century.
Since 1958, descendants of Woodlief and the Jamieson family — which now owns Berkeley — have coordinated an annual Thanksgiving observance at the plantation in early November. This year, more than 4,000 people attended.
“There’s more awareness today than there ever has been,” said event organizer Graham Woodlief, 74, a direct descendant of the original Berkeley settler. He said he doesn’t hold a grudge against the Plymouth version of the holiday.
“Not at all. They just weren’t first,” Woodlief said. “They have perpetuated what we started.”
The Berkeley Thanksgiving has faded in and out of the national consciousness. Perhaps the high mark was in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy made indirect mention in his annual Thanksgiving proclamation, at the request of a Virginia state senator.
“Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving,” Kennedy said, less than three weeks before his assassination.
The story of the Plymouth Thanksgiving also disappeared for a time, historian Pickering said. By the time it re-emerged in the 1830s, the practice of a harvest festival was already ingrained in New England culture. Plymouth gave it an origin story, plus Pilgrims with cool outfits. That was what influential magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale had in mind as she spent decades lobbying presidents to make it a national holiday.
President Abraham Lincoln finally saw the wisdom in 1863, hoping a day of gratefulness and food would help heal a nation fractured by civil war.
So while the Virginia event might have been earlier, “it isn’t a linear contributor to the holiday,” Pickering said.
He doesn’t dismiss it, though. His father may be a Mayflower descendant, but his mother is from Virginia. “Growing up, there was an autumnal struggle between squash pie and pumpkin pie at our house,” Pickering said.
Plymouth and the recreated historic park that goes by the name Plimoth Plantation are planning their own 400th-anniversary commemorations: next year, to mark the Mayflower’s arrival, and for Thanksgiving in 2021.
To help with planning, they turned to their elders down in Virginia.
“There was no other real benchmark for this kind of commemoration,” said Brian Logan, spokesman for Plymouth 400, who is diplomatic about the whole Berkeley Thanksgiving thing.
“We don’t dispute it,” Logan said. “But it’s a very different story.”
The Virginians are similarly restrained.
“We’ve tried to be supportive and know that they will have a tremendous commemoration as well,” said Spangler, the Virginia organizer.
But, you know, Plymouth’s is more recent. “We do put a bit of a stake in the ground on that,” she said.