Southern Thing Column

The birthplace of Thanksgiving isn’t where you thought it was, historian says

The following post is a guest blog by Wil Elrick. During this time when traveling is difficult, he is writing about places on our bucket list.

Raise your hand if you knew that the birthplace of Thanksgiving was controversial. Yes, mine is raised also. In my investigating all things Thanksgiving for our weird bucket list trip update I discovered that yes, this most basic of holidays has a controversy other than being stuck between Halloween and Christmas.

If you read last week’s article, you already know that Plymouth, Massachusetts is basically known as the home to the first Thanksgiving and celebrates accordingly. This is what we learned growing up unless you lived in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In that case you would have been taught that the first Thanksgiving occurred at Berkeley Plantation near what is now Richmond, Virginia.

I am sure you are wondering how this came to be, so here is the short version of it. On December 4, 1619, a ship full of colonists sailing on the ship The Margaret arrived at a spot along the mouth of The James River known as Berkley Hundred which was later changed to Berkeley Plantation. They were settling eight thousand acres of land granted to them by the Berkeley Company of London. Part of this land grant was orders from the Berkeley Company to the ship’s captain that the arrival must “be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

Once the new settlers departed the ship after their 79 day voyage from England, the first thing they did was prey. Historians also suggest that after easting ship board rations for so long, the new colonists made their first “Thanksgiving” meal of oysters and ham. The settlers continued to celebrate the holiday until March of 1622 when native Powhatans attacked Berkley Plantation along with other nearby settlements and killing more than 300 settlers. After the attacks, Berkeley Hundred was abandoned and the “Thanksgiving” tradition forgotten.

Berkeley Plantation (Library of Congress)

The abandoned acreage was decades later purchased by Benjamin Harrison III who began passing the land through his lineage. His son Benjamin Harrison IV constructed the brick home on the property which went on to be the ancestral home of U.S. Presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. It should be noted that Benjamin was not born in the house.

(Click here to read Kelly’s story about the site on SouthernThing.com)

Various reasons led to Benjamin Harrison VIII to mismanage the farm and lose it to foreclosure and eviction prior to the War Between the States. During the war it was used a Federal Army Headquarters but even after the war the Harrisons were unable to reclaim the home and it eventually went into dis-repair and abandonment once again. Years passed until eventually the house was purchased by a lumber tycoon John Jamieson who had served as a drummer boy in the Union Army while it occupied the home. Eventually his son was able to complete renovations, moving into the house in 1938. During the mid-1960’s the house was turned into a museum and remains so to this day attracting visitors from around the world.

I know you are wondering how Berkeley Plantation claims the title to the birthplace of Thanksgiving if the tradition had been forgotten when the area was abandoned the first time. Well, we have a historian and his endless research to thank for this. Dr. Lyon G. Tyler while researching a book about early Virginia found records of the original orders and with the help of the Plantation owner and a descendant of The Margaret (the ship that brought the first colonists to Berkeley Hundred) they were able to convince the commonwealth to re-instate the tradition and claim it’s place as the first Thanksgiving. The first celebration began in 1958 which in part to the rest of the homes historic importance resulted in it being turned into a museum shortly thereafter.

Berkeley Plantation has its statewide Thanksgiving celebration on the first Sunday in November. It was originally held in December on the day of the landing, but it was moved in hopes of having better weather for the celebrations. Hundreds to thousands come to the celebration each year, and for a Thanksgiving road trip you could too.

Shrine to first Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantaion (Joe Orbin | Wikimedia Commons)
Guest house at Berkeley (pi3.124 | Wikimedia Commons)

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