Your View: Claiming the title of the first Thanksgiving

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Your View: Claiming the title of the first Thanksgiving
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By Ellen Latane Tabb, Alexandria (File photo)

To the editor:
Virginians can rightly claim our forebears first celebrated and established the custom of celebrating Thanksgiving on these shores. Their 1619 Thanksgiving celebration at Berkeley Hundred, Va. was the first one that English colonists celebrated, which was intended to be observed annually, although many textbooks mistakenly give the Pilgrims’ 1621 celebration at Plymouth, Mass. that honor. Also, Alexandria’s own George Washington was the first president to set aside a special day for the nation to give thanks for the year’s blessings.

On December 4, 1619, when the Margaret, a ship sailing from Bristol, England, reached her destination 20 miles upstream from Jamestown at Berkeley Hundred — now Berkeley Plantation — Capt. John Woodliffe opened the sealed orders he was given in London.

They directed that the first act of those 38 settlers and eight crewmen should be to have a religious service to give thanks to God for their safe arrival, and the settlers and crew did so. Native Americans, curious about the newcomers and familiar with the settlers and religious services at Jamestown, probably watched. Woodliffe’s orders also 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.” The voyagers then enjoyed eating fresh food.

In 1622, Native Americans attacked Berkeley Hundred and other Virginia settlements, killing nine colonists at Berkeley. After that tragedy, the area was abandoned and the custom of Thanksgiving was observed there for only a few years. Many years later, colonists returned to the site, and the Harrison family built a beautiful home there, Berkeley Plantation.

Benjamin Harrison IV was among those who signed the Declaration of Independence. His grandson, William Henry Harrison, was elected president, as was his grandson, Benjamin Harrison. Both wrote their inaugural addresses at Berkeley.

Today, Berkeley is open to the public. A marker on the shore of the James River indicates the site where the 1619 Thanksgiving was held, and officials hold an annual historical reenactment of the first Thanksgiving at the spot.

For those who might have forgotten, the Pilgrims did not land on the rocky coast of Massachusetts until December 1620. They had intended to come to Virginia, but were blown off course by heavy winds. They starved for the first year, and so were grateful for a bountiful harvest in 1621.

According to the Pilgrim Hall website, “In … 1621, the 53 surviving Pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest, as was the English custom … The Pilgrims did not call this harvest festival a “Thanksgiving,” although they did give thanks to God. For 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.”

Virginians have another tie to our modern Thanksgiving celebration. George Washington issued his first presidential proclamation on October 3, 1789, which called for day of public thanksgiving, fasting — not feasting — and prayer on Thursday, November 26, for the many blessings bestowed on our country, asking pardon for our national transgressions and seeking God’s aid in our future endeavors. Later presidents and governors continued this tradition of setting aside a day for Thanksgiving.

It is appropriate for us, like our predecessors, to celebrate Thanksgiving with a service to God as well as feasting and fun with family and friends. We Virginians are proud to tell our story and claim our heritage as the first English-speaking people to observe a Thanksgiving for our blessings, which was intended for an annual basis.

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