Virginia’s Thanksgiving, Berkeley Plantation


4 December 1619 was a day of Thanksgiving for Captain John Woodlief and his crew of thirty-five exhausted sailors.  After ten weeks at sea, honoring a sacred pledge made when departing England for America, the crew knelt, and in perfect silence listened to Captain Woodlief proclaim, “We ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”  Which it was until 1622.

On the banks of the James River some 20 miles north of Jamestown, Virginia, the settlers enjoyed what historians suppose was a meal of cinnamon water, bacon, peas, and cornmeal cakes.  Yum, I guess.  Little doubt, those were harder, stronger, more devout men than are found along the James these days.  Had to be, being as they were a people fending for themselves, under constant threat and frequent attack.


Virginia's Thanksgiving

Virginia’s Thanksgiving, Berkeley Plantation, 400th Anniversary, 2019. credit: Virginia’s Thanksgiving, Berkeley Plantation Festival.


Unlike the Pilgrims who shared Thanksgiving in alliance with Wampanoag Indians, the Virginia settlers good fellowship toward Powhatan Indians was not returned.  In 1622 when sharing bounty with the Powhatan, the Powhatan carved up their settler friends with the settlers’ own muskets, staves, hatchets, and carving knives, butchering their host, George Thorpe, first.  Much of our early history, its details and lessons have been slighted, forgotten.  Just three years after Captain Woodlief’s Thanksgiving to God, 347 of the Virginia Colony were murdered by the Powhatan, including some of Captain Woodleif’s crew.  The Virginia Thanksgiving oath was put by and soon forgotten.

Virginia's Thanksgiving, poster

Virginia’s Thanksgiving Festival, Berkeley Plantation Festival, Berkeley Hundred, 1619 … Virginia’s Thanksgiving

After centuries of neglect, on 5 November 1963, President Kennedy recalled Woodleif’s Thanksgiving oath in his annual Thanksgiving address: “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.

Before Kennedy’s remembrance, President Lincoln in October 1863 issued a proclamation calling the entire nation to “observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”  You might recall that Sarah Josepha Hale (who won Lincoln’s favor and persuaded the president to designate the annual Thanksgiving celebration) envisioned a happy, tasty day of roast turkey, pumpkin pie, and sweet potatoes.  Thank you, Mrs. Hale … we much prefer turkey, pumpkin pie, and sweet potatoes to peas, bacon, and cornmeal.


Virginia's Thanksgiving, historic

Virginia’s Thanksgiving, Berkeley Plantation. credit: LOC … Virginia’s Thanksgiving


Worth noting: on 16 November 1789 President Washington was first to recognize a national day of thanksgiving, proclaiming “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God”, and reminded us to “beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions… to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue … and generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Virginia's Thanksgiving, with James River

Virginia’s Thanksgiving, Berkeley Plantation, ariel view. credit: Berkeley Plantation

Today we Americans commemorate many Thanksgivings, of Kennedy, of Lincoln, of Washington, of the Massachusetts Pilgrims, and of the Virginia Settlers, each of whom recalled the gratitude due to God for blessings, blessings that each day recede as each day we are less grateful, more prideful and assuming.  You might like to know: the Virginia Thanksgiving oath was offered at what would become Berkeley Plantation, and here since 1958 Woodlief’s Thanksgiving Oath is annually renewed with a traditional Virginia feast, a recognition of African Americans, and a picturesque Indian Powwow.

Berkeley Plantation is famous for many causes.  Within the area of Berkeley’s land grant is America’s first whiskey distillery (1621).  Benjamin Harrison V, three-term governor, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born at Berkeley Plantation.  His son, William Henry Harrison, also born at the plantation, was ninth President of our United States.  (When Harrison died in office, he was succeeded by his neighbor, John Tyler).  Benjamin Harrison, grandson of WHH, was our twenty-third president.  When General George B. McClellan was headquartered at Berkeley Plantation, Major General Daniel Butterfield composed and played the bugle call “Taps



Virginia’s Thanksgiving, blueprint

Virginia’s Thanksgiving, Berkeley Plantation, elevation. credit LOC, HABS


Berkeley Plantation rests within Virgina’s Tidewater, a low-lying alluvial plain on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay between the Atlantic Ocean and the hard rocks of the Appalachians (North Carolina, Virginia, Southern Maryland).  The Virginia Tidewater was settled, for the most part, by Cavaliers, those gallant knights who supported Kings Charles in battle against Cromwell.  The University of Virginia remembers Charles’ gallant knights in their mascot and in the school’s name, Virginia Cavaliers.  Listen close and you will hear something of old England in the Tidewater, Cavalier accent.

The Tidewater is often hot and steamy, sometimes breezeless, it is an area rich in tobacco and sturdy croppers, a people who welcome a tilted chair or a creaking rocker on eave shaded porches.  Too, the Virginia Tidewater welcomes the decorum of columns, ornaments descriptive of Virginia’s upright gentry, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Tyler, Berkeley, Harrison and the rest.  Tidewater architecture is columned when grand, porched when common, and is sometimes a bit of both, common and grand, as we shall see in next editions of The Beautiful Home.


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The Beautiful Home

Virginia’s Thanksgiving, Berkeley Plantation

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* Virginia’s Thanksgiving, Afterword *

There is America’s official Protestant history (above) and there is the American Catholic history (below) with its Thanksgivings seldom considered because not central to founding these United States.  One Catholic Thanksgiving was celebrated by Don Juan de Oñate, the ruthless conquistador chosen by Phillip II to secure the Americas for God, Catholics, and Spain, and to extend Phillip’s empire.  After an expedition from Mexico through 200 miles of desert, the famished conquistadors reached the Rio Grande and there Don Juan ordered the building of a church sufficiently large to hold the thankful survivors (some 550 began the march … we are uncertain how many survived).


The church erected, Te Deum (Thee, O God, we praise) was sung, high Mass was celebrated, and Thanksgiving was offered in the Catholic manner.  Don Juan de Oñate proclaimed, “In the name of the most Holy Trinity … I take possession of this whole land this 30 April 1598, in honor of Our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day of the Ascension of Our Lord.”  Then, the Holy Cross and Phillip’s royal standard were raised, the Thanksgiving feast began (fish, ducks, geese, et cetera), and as in ancient Greece there were games, foot races and the rest.  Feast and games concluded, the assembled Indians knelt to be accepted into the Catholic faith.


Virginia’s Thanksgiving

Castillo de San Marcos, Saint Augustine, Florida. credit: Gagliardi Photography … Virginia’s Thanksgiving


Our first American Catholic Thanksgiving was offered on 8 September 1565 by Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the 800 Spanish settlers who founded Saint Augustine city in La Florida (Florida, the “Feast of Flowers”, named for our Easter celebration).  On this Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to the sound of rousing trumpets, the conquistadors filed ashore, joined in concord with the Seloy Indians, and Thanksgiving Mass was celebrated.  It is recorded that the Seloy participated in the Holy Rite and joined in a feast of salt-pork stew, garlic seasoned garbanzo beans, sea biscuits and red wine, with the addition of their contributions, alligator, tortoise, mullet, drum, sea catfish, maize and other typicals.

Noteworthy: Te Deum Laudamus was sung, and at Thanksgiving’s conclusion Admiral Menendez kissed the cross.  Today, some 300 yards north of Castillo de San Marcos, a 250-foot-high cross marks the site of our first American Thanksgiving, one of many Thanksgivings, each sincere in gratitude to God, His generous love and compassionate care.  Yes, there have been many Christian Thanksgivings … for example, earlier, in June 1564, French explorer Rene Goulaine de Laudonnière and his Huguenots (Protestants) feasted with the Timucuans Indians at the newly constructed Fort Caroline along St. John’s River (present-day Jacksonville).  The explorer noted the event in his diary, “We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching him that it would please his Grace to continue his accustomed goodness toward us.


Virginia’s Thanksgiving

Great Cross of Saint Augustine. credit: GJ Image … Virginia’s Thanksgiving


Again, each American Thanksgiving is offered in gratitude to God, His love of us and grace for our Christian land.


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Virginia’s Thanksgiving: The Beautiful Home