For Va., Half a Holiday Loaf
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
The sting of years of obscurity and wounded pride for Virginia and its claim as the site of the first Thanksgiving in the New World -- which no one in this Pilgrim-besotted country has ever paid much attention to -- got a bit of balm yesterday. No less than President Bush paid a visit to Berkeley Plantation on the James River and acknowledged this long-neglected part of Virginia's history.
"Berkeley claims to be the site of America's first official Thanksgiving. The good folks here say that the founders of Berkeley held their celebration before the Pilgrims had even left port," Bush said as the crowd of 500 erupted in wild applause and hoots. "As you can imagine, this version of events is not very popular up north."
Up north is where most influential early Colonial historians lived and wrote extensively about the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock. Up north is where President Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, sought to bring the country together by creating a national holiday, to be called Thanksgiving. And thus the great harvest feast of turkey, pumpkins, corn, beans and squash that the pious Pilgrim families shared with their friendly native neighbors was enshrined as the official American story. (It's not like Lincoln was going to pick a site in the enemy land of Virginia.)
Bush was careful yesterday not to pick sides in Virginia's long battle for Thanksgiving primacy. Virginians, in historical writings and in forceful op-eds, including one by former Democratic governor Gerald L. Baliles this month, assert that their Thanksgiving in 1619 was a full year and 17 days before the Massachusetts version.
"Even the administration of President Kennedy -- a son of Massachusetts -- recognized Berkeley's role in this important holiday," Bush said.
In fact, Virginia's only other moment in the spotlight came in 1963, when Kennedy mentioned the celebrations in "both Virginia and Massachusetts" in his Thanksgiving address.
"This is something that we've all worked for for so many years, to get history corrected," said an overcome Malcom "Jamie" Jamieson, Berkeley Plantation owner. "This is really going to put the seal of approval on it."
So how did Virginia finally get some measure of vindication?
In truth, it's due, in part, to a pig named Ginny.
First, let's back up.
In the Virginia story, recounted yesterday by Bush, Capt. John Woodlief, a survivor of the Jamestown settlement's "starving time" who had returned to England, set sail from Bristol with 37 other settlers on the good ship Margaret to seek their fortune in the New World. After a violent storm blew them off course, they waded ashore Dec. 4, 1619 at what is now Berkeley Plantation. They opened their orders from their backers, which stated that they were to drop to their knees immediately and give thanks. Their landing date was to "be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God."
No one knows if they had anything other than old ship rations to eat. Historians surmise that they might have supped on roasted oysters and Virginia ham. The settlers didn't stick around long enough to write it down or develop a tradition: They were wiped out in a Powhatan Indian uprising in 1622. From there, the Virginia Thanksgiving story faded from view, save for a handful of die-hard groups that have been hosting a celebration at Berkeley for decades.