MORE THAN A year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, 38 travel-weary English settlers observed Thanksgiving along the banks of Virginia's James River on Dec. 4, 1619.
Each year on the first Sunday of November, America's first Thanksgiving is recreated on the original site at Berkeley Plantation halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg. The celebration, held a month earlier than the anniversary date to take advantage of warmer weather, features a reenactment of the settlers' landing, a native Virginia Indian village, Indian dancers and tours of the plantation with guides in period costumes.
The Berkeley Plantation and Hundred in Virginia was patented in 1618 by Richard Berkeley and three other English gentlemen. The Virginia Company granted them a charter for 8,000 acres of meadowland, virgin forests and three miles of frontage on the James River. The charter was meticulously drawn up by the founding partner of the Berkeley Company, John Smythe Esq. of Nibley, England -- not to be confused with Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame.
The Berkeley Company selected its 38 colonists with care. These were no Jamestown adventurers or misfits; led by the seasoned Captain John Woodlief, the men were carpenters, gunsmiths, shoemakers, cooks and gardeners. The Berkeley Company overlooked little in providing the colonists with all the tools and supplies they might need -- muskets, Bibles, two suits of clothing for each man, and "a ton and a half of beer," according to "The Great Plantation," a profile of Berkeley by Clifford Dowdey.
And the company was most explicit in its charter. It commanded that ". . . the day of their arrivall at the place assigned for the plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God." On Dec. 4, 1619, after a two and a half month voyage from England on the 35-foot-long ship Margaret, the small band stepped ashore and knelt to pray.
This was the first official Thanksgiving in America.
The colony's struggle over the next few years was somewhat lightened by an Anglican missionary's discovery of how to make bourbon whiskey from Indian corn. By the spring of 1622, Berkeley was beginning to prosper and a second group of colonists, which included women and children, brought the population up to about 90. But on Good Friday, March 22, 1622, Berkeley and other James River plantations were attacked by native Americans who had been thought to be friendly.
Although there were 14 survivors at Berkeley, the massacres there and throughout the colony marked the beginning of the end of the era of the absentee company in Virginia. Companies like Berkeley would be replaced by hard-working planters working small plots of land. Their descendants became the ruling families of Virginia, and the leaders of the nation in its early years: the Lees, the Carters, the Byrds and the Harrisons. The latter purchased the Berkeley Hundred Plantation in 1691.
The first Benjamin Harrison most likely arrived from England after the massacres, but prior to 1630. His grandson Benjamin Harrison III purchased Berkeley and established a thriving port, ship yard and tobacco export business. In 1726, Benjamin Harrison IV and his wife Anne Carter built a three-story brick Georgian house with terraced boxwood gardens that still run down to the James River. Their son Benjamin V, like four generations of Harrisons before him, served in the House of Burgesses. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and was elected to three terms as governor of Virginia. His younger son William Henry Harrison gained fame as an Indian fighter at Tippecanoe, was named governor of the Northwest Territory, served in the House and the Senate and was elected president of the United States in 1840. William Henry's grandson, another Benjamin, was elected president in 1888.
The current owner of Berkeley, Malcolm Jamieson, was once described in an editorial page cartoon as "the man who stole Thanksgiving." Through his promotion of Berkeley and its role in the first Thanksgiving, he has caused history to be rewritten. Even John F. Kennedy, a native son of Massachusetts, acknowledged that the Virginia Thanksgiving came before the Pilgrim observance.
Jamieson's father, a Scottish immigrant, purchased Berkeley in 1907 -- 45 years after he was encamped there as a Union Army drummer boy. The plantation was in a state of ruin when Malcolm Jamieson inherited Berkeley in 1927. He not only has restored the manor house to its former grandeur, but revitalized the land through planting trees and boxwood, building ponds and making the great plantation productive once again.
BERKELEY PLANTATION -- On Route 5 between Richmond and Williamsburg, Va. 804/829-6018. Open 8 to 5 daily. Admission is $8 adults, $7.20 senior citizens, $4 for ages 6 to 18 and free for 5 and younger. From Washington, take I-95 south to Richmond to I-295 east and exit at Route 5 east (John Tyler Memorial Highway); follow to Berkeley Plantation.
VIRGINIA THANKSGIVING FESTIVAL -- At Berkeley Plantation, Sunday beginning at 9. Activities include an interfaith Thanksgiving service, band concert, musical entertainment, Indian dances, demonstrations of native Indian crafts, Elizabethan magicians and native Virginia foods. Tours of the plantation house are scheduled throughout the day. A reenactment drama on the Plantation West Lawn along the banks of the James River will begin at 1. Visitors are invited to bring lawn chairs or picnic blankets. Admission, which includes parking and a tour of the house, is $10, $8 for senior citizens, $3 for ages 5 to 16 and free for 5 and younger; call 804/272-3226. The Coach House Tavern restaurant on the plantation will be open but reservations are suggested; call 804/829-6003.
Linda Leslie and Bill Choyke last wrote for Weekend about Belle Grove Plantation.