Reflections on the first Thanksgiving
On Friday, April 3, 1931, an article titled “First Thanksgiving in America Was Decreed for Town of Berkeley on James” was published in The Richmond News Leader. It was written by Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, a columnist for the newspaper. Dr. Tyler, the son of President John Tyler, lived on the James River, downriver from his friend and neighbor “Mac” Jamieson, who owned Berkeley Plantation.
Dr. Tyler was doing research at the New York Public Library and accidently uncovered the John Smyth of Nibley papers, a collection of notes and letters that told of an interesting voyage to the New World.
Smyth was a relative of Richard Berkeley, who owned Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, England. They, along with two other adventurers — who were family members— met in London in the spring of 1618 to plan an expedition to Virginia.
The men had been given a land grant by King James I of 8,000 acres to start a settlement on the James River.
They needed a leader and chose JohnWoodliffe. He had been to the New World several times, including spending 11 years at Jamestown.
He was there during the “Starving Time” from 1609 to 1610. Known as the Berkeley Company, the four adventurers gave Woodliffe the title of captain and made him the first governor of the colony.
He leased the good ship Margaret, which weighed 47 tons and only was 35 feet long. It was a small ship built to carry 35 settlers, 19 crew members and CaptainWoodliffe across the stormy Atlantic for 2 1/2 months. He recruited 35 men of substance, craftsmen with the skills and determination to build a settlement. He also purchased the needed supplies.
After the long voyage across the ocean, they entered the Chesapeake Bay and sailed up the James River. The ship arrived at the Berkeley Hundred site on Dec. 4, 1619. As instructed by the Berkeley Company when they landed,
Captain Woodliffe opened a list of 10 commands he had been given. The very first instruction was that they say the following prayer when they landed. They prayed:
“Wee ordain that the day of our ship’s arrival 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.”
The first “official” English Thanksgiving in America just had occurred, one year and 17 days before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. They gave thanks for several more years until the settlement was destroyed in 1622.
This historic event was recognized by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, by President George W. Bush at Berkeley Plantation and by legislators
throughout Virginia. The late Gov. Gerald Baliles said in a 2007 speech at Berkeley, “Let us not allow Virginia’s First Thanksgiving to languish in the mists of time. It could, should and ought to be the gift of history that never stops giving.”
As we reflect on Thanksgiving, let it be a time of thankfulness, gratefulness and a time to be with family. Let us appreciate those early settlers who endured so much to bring us the freedoms we now enjoy.
And let us give thanks to this great country that we live in and for those first responders who work so diligently to protect our lives.
The late Gov. Gerald Baliles said in a 2007 speech at Berkeley, “Let us not allow Virginia’s First Thanksgiving to languish in the midst’s of time. It could, should and ought to be the gift
of history that never stops giving”.