Wednesday, November 21, 2018

November 21, 2018

MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey

Thanksgiving Wishes to All – The First Thanksgiving Was in Virginia, not Massachusetts


In addition to wishing each of you and your families a joyous and blessed Thanksgiving, I will pass on to you today some “real” history.

For as long as most of us can recall, via our schools, those special television programs, handed-down lore, and overwhelming commercialization the Thanksgiving holiday has been thought of as a kind of commemoration in family and with friends of what is called “the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, Massachusetts,” held by those revered “Pilgrim Fathers” (I suppose today in this age of political correctness we should probably say “Pilgrim men, women, transgenders, and transsexuals”…although, as far as I know no fancy Harvard feminist historian has yet unearthed any proof that any of those rather stern religious Pilgrims was anything but traditional by current standards; but I’m not holding my breath!).

A bit later I share with you something on this story, for it is not exactly correct.

In family, as I remember my early Thanksgivings, we assembled to give thanks, first to Almighty God for the blessings, even the rather meager ones, we had received, for our health, for a good harvest and for the goodness of creation, and, most of all, for family. Only surpassed perhaps by Christmas (or our respective birthdays), Thanksgiving was a time when those sweet and delicious smells coming out of mother’s (and grandmother’s) kitchen tempted us with anticipation. The women—usually several generations, maybe including aunts and cousins—worked tirelessly to create some amazing and sumptuous dishes for our repast. Usually there was a grand turkey, baked with maybe stuffing inside, or perhaps yams; and there was baked ham also (some relatives always preferred it, but only a few!). And then, in addition to the stuffing, there was always an assortment of "side" items—corn, maybe on the cob; homemade mashed potatoes (I liked mine a little lumpy); corn and bread pudding; string beans (that had been canned just the summer before); and sometimes some salads, sometimes really fancy congealed ones.

And who can forget those desserts? The chess and chocolate pies and coconut cakes, the scrumptious puddings? Sometimes we had specially-made pastries and cookies—they usually took a long time to make, but, my, what tasty delights. I can until this day taste the homemade gingerbread and sugar cookies, fresh from the oven.

While the women cooked and prepared, the menfolk would gather in another room, some smoking cigars or pipes, with heavy conversation, either about how things had gone on during the recent harvest, or maybe about politics (those things strictly limited to men, not for the women).

And we children? Well, if it were a nice day and not too cold, we played outside, maybe hide-and-seek or some other such game. The older boys would often play touch football, even occasionally a few hoops.

But when the dinner call came, usually from grandmother, all of us—men and children—would hurry to the dining room where we all had assigned places. For the smaller children there was usually a separate table, and only when we children reached a certain age, usually around thirteen or so, were we permitted to sit at the adult table—and then not to speak unless spoken to or invited to by an adult. We knew that and we respected it, and in many ways we treasured that custom. We understood that in family there was and must be a hierarchy.

After the blessing, usually given by granddad, or sometimes by my father, and on one or two occasions, by special request, by one of the children, everyone enjoyed the gracious meal which might well last a considerable part of the afternoon.

I remember that afterwards the men would sometimes take a walk, inviting us children to accompany them…walking off the weight, my grandmother would say, although I never witnessed much reduction in anyone’s waistline.

The one thing that was impressed on us was this: we were thankful and grateful for our family, for our country and our inherited beliefs, and for the goodness that God had granted us. I never forgot that meaning, and it remains with me today, many decades after those childhood memories were formed.

My wish, then, for each of you is that your Thanksgiving be a blessed one, in family and with friends, and that through the fellowship and the breaking of bread together we acknowledge the great gifts vouchsafed us from Our Lord.

A very happy and blessed Thanksgiving to you all and your families!

Lastly, as I wrote at the beginning of this installment of MY CORNER, over the years Thanksgiving has been associated with Plymouth and the Pilgrims. But leave it to our northern brethren to appropriate the holiday while ignoring the reality that the very first Thanksgiving was held near Jamestown, Virginia, before those “Pilgrim Fathers” ever assembled. And I pass on a well-documented item that offers some remarkable insight on this topic. I think you’ll find it quite interesting:

The First Thanksgiving Took Place in Virginia, not Massachusetts


Years of elementary school history lessons taught us that Plymouth, Massachusetts, was the site of the first Thanksgiving. Those lessons were false. A year and 17 days before those Pilgrims ever stepped foot upon New England soil, a group of English settlers led by Captain John Woodlief landed at today’s Berkeley Plantation, 24 miles southwest of Richmond. After they arrived on the shores of the James River, the settlers got on their knees and gave thanks for their safe passage. There was no traditional meal, no lovefest with Native Americans, no turkey. America’s first Thanksgiving was about prayer, not food. That came later….

On September 16th, 1619, the Margaret departed Bristol, England, bound for the New World. Aboard the 35-foot-long ship were 35 settlers, a crew, five “captain’s assistant”, a pilot, and Woodlief, a much-experienced survivor of the 1609/1610 Jamestown’s “Starving Time.” The mission of those aboard Margaret was to settle 8,000 acres of land along the James River that had been granted to them by the London-based Berkeley Company. They were allowed to build farms, storehouses, homes, and a community on company land. In exchange, they were contracted as employees, working the land and handing over crops and profits to the company.

After a rough two-and-a-half months on the Atlantic, the ship entered the Chesapeake Bay on November 28, 1619. It took another week to navigate the stormy bay, but they arrived at their destination, Berkeley Hundred, later called Berkeley Plantation, on December 4. They disembarked and prayed. Historians think there was nothing but old ship rations to eat, so the settlers may have concocted a meal of oysters and ham out of necessity rather than celebration. At the behest of written orders given by the Berkeley Company to Captain Woodlief, it was declared that their arrival must “be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.” And that’s exactly what they did–for two years. On March 22, 1622, Powhatan, who’d realized the settlers intended to expand their territory and continue their attempts to convert and “civilize” them, attacked Berkeley and other settlements, killing 347. Woodlief survived, but soon after, Berkeley Hundred was abandoned. For three centuries, America’s first Thanksgiving was lost to history.

Graham Woodlief is a direct descendant of Captain Woodlief. While he’s known his family’s history since being a teenager, he’s devoted a considerable amount of energy to research since he retired in 2009. Today, Woodlief is president of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival, which has been held annually since 1958. Woodlief says he thinks the major reason that Plymouth, and not Berkley, is universally thought to be the site of the first Thanksgiving is that “they had better PR than we did.” He also said the emphasis on prayer, instead of Plymouth’s festive harvest meal, also made Virginia’s Thanksgiving a bit less appealing, though more accurate. “In fact, most Thanksgivings in the early days were religious services, not meals,” Woodlief says.

309 years after the 1622 battle with the Powhatans, Berkeley Plantation’s missing history was rediscovered. In 1931, retired William & Mary President (and son of President John Tyler) Dr. Lyon G. Tyler was working on a book about early Virginia history. While doing research, he stumbled upon the Nibley Papers, documents and records taken by John Smyth of Nibley, Gloucestershire, about the 1619 settlement of Berkeley. Originally published by the New York State Library in 1899, the papers’ historical significance had gone undetected. According to Virginia historians, the papers are concrete proof that the New World’s “day of Thanksgiving” originated in their region. Upon his discovery, Tyler told Malcolm Jamieson, who had inherited Berkeley plantation in the 1920s. The plantation was already considered one of the more historic homes in the state, once a residence to a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as well as the birthplace of a US President. Now, it had another feather in its historic hat. Jamieson, with the help of descendants of Captain Woodlief, instituted the first Virginia Thanksgiving Festival in 1958. It’s been celebrated ever since.

While locals are convinced about Berkeley’s place among Thanksgiving lore, the rest of the country has been a tougher sell. Throughout the 1960s, Virginia state Senator John J. Wicker Jr. took it upon himself to tell the world of the real story of the first Thanksgiving. He pleaded Virginia’s case to Massachusetts governor John A. Volpe. He went on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson dressed in full 17th-century settler garb. When President Kennedy gave his 1962 Thanksgiving Proclamation and said that Plymouth was the site of the first Thanksgiving, it was Wicker who chastised the White House for ignoring Virginia. Much to his surprise, he received a reply from Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Kennedy’s appointed historian and speechwriter. Schlesinger’s response was also amazingly candid: “The President has asked me to reply to your telegram… You are quite right and I can only plead an unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff… I can assure you the error will not be repeated in the future.”

And it wasn’t. In Kennedy’s 1963 Thanksgiving Proclamation (made 17 days before his assassination), the president acknowledged Virginia’s claim, saying “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving.” In 2007, President George W. Bush also noted the history while visiting Berkeley Plantation, commenting that, “The good folks here say that the founders of Berkeley held their celebration before the Pilgrims had even left port. As you can imagine, this version of events is not very popular up north.”

Today, hundreds of people attend the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival every year on the first Sunday of November (it was originally held in December, but moved years ago in hopes of having better weather). “We want to set history straight,” Woodlief says. “It is an important historical event that happened in Virginia. It needs to be recognized as such.”

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                                                         April 30, 2021   MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey   The Survival of Western Culture...