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Va. Group Wants to Unseat Pilgrims at History's Table

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page A01

Imagine a Thanksgiving Day without Pilgrims. No turkey, no cranberries, no happy celebrations with family and friends crammed around the extended dining-room table.

Picture this instead: a solemn day of fasting, meditation and introspection, followed by a light meal of roasted oysters or Virginia ham.


Jamie Jamieson, Berkeley Plantation's owner, says the first Thanksgiving was somewhere on this James River shore. (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

That, some Virginians claim, was how the real "first" Thanksgiving in the New World was celebrated Dec. 4, 1619, by several dozen men who had just landed on the shores of the James River at what is now Berkeley Plantation, two years before the Pilgrims' harvest feast in Massachusetts.

The Virginia Thanksgiving was lost to history for more than 300 years, thanks in part, the Virginians say, to a massacre by Native Americans, the Civil War and the Yankee historians who "absconded" with it. The South's historic disregard for the holiday as a Northern tradition -- in the 19th century and even into the 20th, businesses and state and city offices in parts of the South stayed defiantly open -- didn't help, either.

Now, a band of Virginia die-hards, a small, private nonprofit known as the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival Inc., says it is determined to set the record straight. But there is heavy freight in taking on such American icons as the Pilgrims and a mythical narrative of cooperation, feasting and friendship across races that for more than a century has become the American Story.

In other words, the Virginians haven't gotten very far.

The high point in their 44-year fight against obscurity came in 1962, when Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the eminent historian who was then a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, wrote a short note of apology to the group verifying Virginia's claim to be first. "You are quite right: and I can only plead an unconquerable New England bias." He promised that the "error will not be repeated in the future."

Fat lot of good that did. Kids still dress up in buckskin as Squanto, friend to the Pilgrims, or in square black hats with square buckles on their shoes for the Thanksgiving pageant. Almost everyone knows about the Mayflower. And tens of thousands of people visit the broken chunk of what once was Plymouth Rock -- where legend says the ship landed -- enshrined in what appears to be a miniature Greek temple.

But even today, few people outside Charles City, site of the Berkeley landing and one of state's most rural areas, have heard of the Virginia Thanksgiving. And the state's own standards for what to teach in public schools include lesson plans on the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving and no mention of Virginia's.

"If they want to teach that, that's fine, but it's inaccurate," sighed Jamie Jamieson, who owns Berkeley Plantation and organizes an alternate "first" Thanksgiving feast on the first Sunday of each November. "We're working on it."

Jamieson stands on his farm on the banks of the James, just downriver from a small brick archway commemorating the Berkeley Thanksgiving. Push a bright green button and a loudspeaker, wired to a tree, tells the story:

In 1619, 38 men, led by Capt. John Woodlief, sailed from Bristol, England, on the good ship Margaret to seek fortune in the New World. Upon landing in Virginia, they waded ashore, opened their instructions from the Berkeley Co., which sponsored their expedition, and discovered that the first order of business was to drop to their knees.

"Wee ordaine that the Day of our [ship's] arrivall at the place assigned for the plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God," the order read.

But unlike the religious-freedom-seeking Pilgrims, initially befriended by Wampanoag Indians who taught them to farm and fish, the Virginians at Berkeley and at Jamestown -- the earliest British settlement in the colonies -- were a bit more antagonistic with the Powhatans.


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