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Virginia: the first to give thanks in America

When was the first Thanksgiving?

Oh sure, it was the Pilgrims in Massachusetts near Plymouth Rock in the fall of 1621. There was a great feast with their Indian friends.

Not so quickly. What about Virginia? Many Virginians would tell you that the first Thanksgiving celebration was held on the shores of the James River two years earlier in 1619 when the new English colonists worshiped together, offering thanks for a safe journey to the New World.

The debate between the two states over who had the first Thanksgiving has gone on for years. Frankly, Massachusetts and the Rock just seemed to have won out because of its better public relations program.

Massachusetts-born President John F. Kennedy in his 1963 Thanksgiving Day proclamation however, added significant weight to Virginia’s claim. In the annual declaration he recognized both celebrations writing: “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving.

“On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God.”

Nationally, President George Washington in his first year as president proclaimed November 26, 1789 as “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God” and called upon his fellow citizens to join in the remembrance.

It was President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, who in 1863 designated the last Thursday of November as a national holiday of “thanksgiving and praise” for the blessings of “fruitful fields and healthful skies.”

An organized effort to recognize the Virginia claim began in 1958 with the establishment of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival, headed for many years by State Senator John J. Wicker, Jr. of Richmond. In November 1962 Wicker sent a telegram to President Kennedy “taking issue” with him regarding his proclamation, which gave full Thanksgiving credit to Massachusetts and the Pilgrims. It made no reference whatsoever to Virginia’s day of Thanksgiving.

Records indicate that historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., one of Kennedy’s special assistants, responded on the president’s behalf: “You are quite right; and I can only plead an unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff.”

Thus in 1963 the “corrected” Thanksgiving proclamation came to be declared, recognizing both Virginia and Massachusetts.

Just for the record, the ship “Margaret,” under the leadership of Captain John Woodlief, sailed to Virginia’s shores from Bristol England in the fall of 1619. Thirty-three Englishmen were on board, and after stopping at what is now Hampton, Virginia, the ship sailed up the James River and arrived at the Berkeley grant in what is now Charles City County at the present Berkeley Plantation.

Under their instructions for this specific colony, the group held a Thanksgiving service at Berkeley on Dec. 4, 1619.

The late Malcolm Jamieson, owner of Berkeley Plantation (now run by his son Malcolm Jamison, Jr.) helped urge the festival to become larger and larger. It did so.

This year’s 56th Annual Virginia Thanksgiving Festival will be held Sunday, Nov. 5, at Berkeley Plantation from noon to 4 p.m. The Plantation is located off State Rt. 5 in Charles City County.

Included in the commemorative program will be a re-enactment of Woodlief’s landing and that first Thanksgiving, to be staged at 3 p. m. The festival will open with a parade of horse-drawn carriages, fife and drum corps and festival entertainers.

Additionally the Chickahominy Tribal Dancers will be on hand along with first person re-enactors taking roles of the early 17th-century English settlers.

There also will be food, arts, crafts and jewelry vendors, a silent auction and a corn maze for the youngsters. Festival admission and parking will be $5 for motorcycles and bikes; $10 for cars, trucks and SUVs and $20 for buses. Tours of Berkeley’s Mansion House also are available at $12 per person, with discount rates for seniors, military and children ages 6-16.

For additional information call 888-466-6018 (toll free) or 804-829-6018



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