Ever since the days of President John F. Kennedy, Virginians have proclaimed that the nation’s first Thanksgiving was celebrated on the banks of the James River—rather than in Massachusetts near Plymouth Rock.
Skeptics said the revival of the Virginia claim in 1962 was simply a public relations effort by the late Malcolm Jamison, owner of Berkeley Plantation, and the Woodlief family, descendants of 17th-century adventurer John Woodlief, whose colonists delivered the important thanks had.
A Virginia politician, the late John J. Wicker, approached Kennedy and challenged his 1962 Thanksgiving Proclamation, which recognized the Pilgrims of Massachusetts for the first Thanksgiving.
A year later, just weeks before his assassination, Kennedy issued another Thanksgiving proclamation, supplementing his earlier statement with Virginia’s acknowledgment: “More than three centuries ago, in Virginia and Massachusetts, our ancestors lived far from home, in a lonely wilderness Take a moment for Thanksgiving.”
Now Richmond author and historian Paul Aron has looked at Massachusetts history and is skeptical.
Aron’s recent book, American Stories, is a collection of “true and not-so-true” stories about legends like George Washington’s cherry tree and Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin. Among the others is a chapter – “Thanksgiving” – in which he notes that contemporary accounts of the 1621 festival contain no mention of “thanksgiving”.
He suggests it was a 19th-century invention; There is no “primary source of pilgrimage linking Thanksgiving to the Feast of 1621 or any Fall Feast.”
“What the pilgrims did NOT do was declare their harvest festival Thanksgiving,” writes Aron. “It was not until 1841 that (cleric and author) Alexander Young, in a collection of the works of (colonial leaders William) Bradford and (Edward) Winslow and other pilgrims, called the festival of 1621 ‘the first Thanksgiving’.”
Regarding the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, in 1848 Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godley’s Lady’s Book, launched a campaign for the government to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Aron notes that Hale was a poet and “her most famous work begins with ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.”
Hale wrote to President Lincoln on September 28, 1863, asking him to “make our annual Thanksgiving a national (holiday) and Union feast day.” She noted that her magazine had been pushing for the holidays for the past 15 years.
Born in New Hampshire, Hale pointed out that Thanksgiving had been celebrated in New England for years, but she made no mention of Pilgrims or Massachusetts in her letter to Lincoln.
Five days after the date of Hale’s letter, Lincoln issued his proclamation declaring the last Thursday of November the national Thanksgiving Day.
Historically, Virginia’s claim to the first Thanksgiving was established in 1931 when Lyon G. Tyler, historian, genealogist and son of President John Tyler, was doing research at the New York Public Library. He uncovered documents chronicling the 1619 expedition to Virginia led by John Woodlief, which landed on the banks of the James River at what later became Berkeley Plantation in what is now Charles City County.
Tyler, the retired president of the College of William & Mary, spotted a specific Thanksgiving explanation. Woodlief, captain of the Margaret – the ship that sailed from Bristol, England, to Virginia – had written instructions from the London Co.
Woodlief and his crew of 35 landed on December 4, 1619, and he read out the instructions, which included a prayer: “We ordain that this day of the arrival of our ships shall be held at the place allotted for Plantacon in the country of Virginia every year and be kept holy forever as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
The Virginia Thanksgiving Festival – organized to recognize and promote Virginia’s Thanksgiving claim – opened to the public at Berkeley Plantation in 1965. The event, complete with re-enactments, music and tribal dancers, is now held annually on the first Sunday of November.
Graham Woodlief, direct descendant of John Woodlief, recently wrote of Thanksgiving in Virginia: “Historians have noted that the celebration of Thanksgiving in the early days was a purely religious experience, centered solely on prayer. It was a celebratory affair, not a food festival like our friends in Massachusetts had experienced”—a year and 17 days later.
Wilford Kale, [email protected]