A visit to Berkeley Plantation in Virginia will take you on a journey back to one of the earliest English settlements in America and the sight of the first Thanksgiving.
Berkeley Plantation is twenty-nine miles from the first English settlement at Jamestown that was established in 1607. It is one of many plantations situated along the James River in southeastern Virginia. Traveling by land, it is located twenty-three miles southeast of Richmond along historic Rte 5 where one will see farmland, some modest commercial ventures, and exits to many other plantations.
There were a variety of reasons people emigrated from England to the colonies in the 1600’s. Some came for religious freedom, others to escape poverty, over population, and failing industries. There were also immigrants pursuing financial opportunities. Profit was the motive in 1618 when four English gentlemen met in London to establish a company to start the “Berkeley Hundred and Plantation” on the 8,000 acres and three miles of waterfront granted them by King James I. Their expedition sailed on the “Good Ship Margaret” in August of 1619 from Bristol, England to settle, grow crops, and establish commercial ventures. One of the men, John Smyth of Nibley, was the historian of the Berkeley family and Berkeley castle in England. He also chronicled the “Berkeley expedition” and settlement of Virginia from 1609-1622.
The First Official Thanksgiving in America
Most of us associate the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. Actually, the first official Thanksgiving occurred 590 miles south of Plymouth and almost two years before the Pilgrims and Indians shared a harvest feast. The “Margaret” dropped anchor at the Berkeley site December 4, 1619, and upon going ashore the Captain John Woodlief and the company of men dropped to their knees and prayed:
“We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival,
at the place assigned for plantacon (plantation) in the land of Virginia,
shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy
as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”
Where the Massachusetts celebration was primarily a social occasion with the Indians, the Berkeley event was strictly a religious one. The London Company gave specific instructions that this religious ceremony was to be repeated annually, and it was . . . for a time. The Virginia settlers and the Indians initially enjoyed friendly relations; however on March 22, 1622, in a calculated plan, Chief Opechancanough led a massive attack at many of the settlements for 140 miles on either side of the James River and Berkeley was among those that perished. Jamestown prepared for the attack as they were warned of the intended massacre by an Indian named Chanco, so were able to defend themselves. The Massacre of 1622 ended the settlement of Berkeley and the annual celebration of Thanksgiving until 1958 when it was reinstated.
(This is in part a re-print of a blogpost I posted on Colonial Quills.)
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday, 394 years after that first Thanksgiving in Virginia, my prayer is that we will all draw closer to God, and be thankful for the many ways He has blessed us individually and as a nation.