An article appeared in the Richmond News Leader on Friday, April 3, 1931, entitled “First Thanksgiving in America Decreed for Town of Berkeley on the James.” The author of the article was Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, a scholar, and president of the College of William and Mary. He was also the son of President John Tyler.
During his research, Dr. Tyler uncovered documents, known as the Nibley papers, that chronicled the voyage of Capt. John Woodlief and his band of 35 settlers to the New World, where upon landing, as instructed by England, they gave thanks to Almighty God for their safe voyage.
Dr. Tyler likely discovered the account of the voyage either at the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress. Once his article was published in the News Leader, at the time one of Virginia’s largest newspapers, Virginians and the nation learned the true story of the first English Thanksgiving in America. Dr. Tyler told his neighbor, “Mac” Jamieson of his discovery and that this significant historical event had occurred on Jamieson’s property, Berkeley Plantation.
It all began in the spring of 1618 after four gentlemen had been given a grant, by England’s King James I, of 8,000 acres of beautiful land in Virginia on the James River. The four gentlemen were John Throckmorton, George Thorpe, John Smythe, and Richard Berkeley. They formed the Berkeley Company and needed someone to lead the expedition to the New World.
The group chose John Woodlief, who was an Ancient Planter, had been to the New World several times and had survived the Starving Time at Jamestown. Upon his selection, they made him a captain and the first governor of the new colony of Berkeley Hundred.
Woodlief prepared for the trip and leased the good ship Margaret. The Margaret was a small ship for those times and weighed only 47 tons and was 35 feet long. He recruited the settlers for the expedition and chose men of crafts, men more comfortable doing the work than having it done for them. They were men with the skills and determination to build a settlement.
Woodlief gathered supplies for the voyage, including foods and beverages that would be preserved for such a long trip across the Atlantic. He brought tools and beads to trade with the Indians.
The voyage left Kingrode, Bristol, England, at 8 a.m., on a beautiful morning, on Sept. 16, 1619. It was a slow start, but on the seventh day a small gale picked up and the ship made good speed. It was a perilous journey and the men prayed constantly.There were several bad storms, the settlers became homesick, conditions were claustrophobic, there was no way to bathe and there was constant vermin infestation.
It is likely the men lived and probably slept on the open deck, as supplies were stored below. After two and a half months, on Nov. 28, 1619, the ship arrived in the Chesapeake Bay. The day they arrived a shroud storm came upon them, the ship lost its capstan, which controlled the anchor, and they almost didn’t make it through the night. They survived and proceeded across the bay and up the King James River.
On Dec. 4, 1619, the ship arrived at its destination, Berkeley Hundred, and the men rowed ashore. Clifford Dowdey wrote in his book “The Great Plantation”: “The men placed their personal luggage on the hard ground, gazed at the woods enclosing them and listened in complete silence. Then at a command from Captain Woodlief, the men kneeled and said a prayer of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for their safe voyage.”
They did this in accordance with the proclamation they received from the Berkeley Company in England, instructing them, upon arrival, to give thanks and to do so annually and perpetually. The first English Thanksgiving in America had just occurred. This ceremony occurred more than a year before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and two years before they held their harvest feast with their Native American friends.
Many Thanksgivings were held in the colonies during that time, but they were spontaneous and one-time events. Unlike other Thanksgivings, the Berkeley Thanksgiving took place as a result of the proclamation received from England and was repeated annually, until the colony was destroyed in 1622.
Thanks to Dr. Tyler’s article, Virginia and the nation knew about this historic event. In fact, when President John F. Kennedy issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1962, he recognized the Massachusetts Thanksgiving, but not Virginia’s.
Virginia State Sen. John J. Wicker immediately sent a telegram to President Kennedy taking issue with his omission. Shortly after, Wicker received a reply from Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s historian, who agreed with him. He attributed the “error” to unconquerable bias on the part of the White House staff and assured Wicker the reference would be corrected in the future. And it was. In his 1963 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Kennedy gave credit to both Virginia and Massachusetts, in that order — Virginia first, for their celebrations of Thanksgiving.
Several years earlier, in November 1961 Senator Wicker and a delegation of Virginians paid a visit to Massachusetts. With one of them clad in Colonial costume the group climbed Boston’s Beacon Hill to tell Gov. John A. Volpe that the Virginia Thanksgiving preceded the well-known observance at Plymouth.
They presented Governor Volpe with a turkey and a proclamation supporting Virginia’s claim. The group then headed to Plymouth, where they presented a turkey to the chairman of the Plymouth Board of Selectmen. They were welcomed on both occasions, but of course, no one agreed with them
The Virginia Thanksgiving and its historical significance are important to all Virginians. As former Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles said to a gathering at Berkeley during the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival in 2007, “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 a descendent of Captain Woodlief and a Virginian, I agree. We should all do our part and heed Governor Baliles’ advice.