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Let Virginia promote the real first Thanksgiving

November 18, 2007 12:36 am



CHARLOTTESVILLE--Could Virginia's Thanksgiving be the gift that keeps on giving? Yes. Maybe in more ways than one.

Never inclined to hide its history under a basket, Virginia completed this year a successful and rewarding commemoration of its origins 400 years ago at Jamestown. We received front-page coverage, not only in national publications, but also throughout the world.

Why? Because there are so many aspects of Virginia's history--many uplifting and inspiring, others problematic and regrettable--that invite re-examination, discussion, and debate.

In other words, within Virginia's long history--brave and fateful, good or bad--there are lessons for modern America about how we came to be and the consequences of historic choices. Virginia's story offers insight and better understanding into our national narrative.

Yet one key feature of Virginia's historic development--an early and important chapter--remains, if not neglected, insufficiently recognized.

I refer to the first Thanksgiving held in America. It took place on what is now the site of Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County. This giving of thanks took place on Dec. 4, 1619--or, as another way of looking at it, precisely one year and 17 days before the Pilgrims landed in New England, and 12 years after Jamestown's founding.

The Pilgrims--more accurately, their latter-day marketers--would leave you with a different perception. In their telling, the runner-up gets top billing.

It is not supposition that brings one to the above conclusion. On Nov. 9, 1962, Virginia state Sen. John Wicker sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy, taking issue with the previous year's Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. Wicker claimed he already had proved to the governor of Massachusetts the validity of Virginia's claim to the first Thanksgiving by the simple expedient of hauling out the records.

'unconquerable bias'

In response, Wicker received an apologetic reply from none other than famed historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Writing on behalf of the president, Schlesinger attributed the "error" to "unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff."

But at least the White House mended its ways. President Kennedy's next Thanksgiving Proclamation stated that "over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of Thanksgiving."

Wicker, who hailed from Richmond, found elation in the fact the White House had responded at all. Now the president actually had mentioned Virginia first!

In some respects, we can look back upon that as whimsical exchange. Yet the fact remains that when the historic record speaks, the correct conclusion cannot be avoided: An organized Thanksgiving was held in Virginia more than a year before the Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower and two years prior to the Massachusetts Thanksgiving in 1621.

There's more. The Nov. 24, 1969, Congressional Record (Vol. 115, No. 194) gives a glowing review of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival. On that day, U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. recognized the officers of the festival and asked his colleagues for permission to have a Thanksgiving prayer read into the Record. There were no objections.

Details of the first Virginia Thanksgiving--the first in America--remain sketchy, though the record shows that a prayerful "thank you" was made to God for delivering the London Company settlers safely across the Atlantic. We will never know the specifics of their first meal, as there are no documents or diaries remaining. Perhaps they ate whatever rations remained from their arduous trip or partook of some bounty from the Chesapeake Bay.

What we do have is the edict from the London Company, spelling out the prayer to be repeated each year, at Berkeley, on the first Sunday in November. It reads like this:

"Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for platacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God."

suffering redeemed

It is also worth mentioning that Captain John Woodlief, who led the settlers to Berkeley, was a survivor of Jamestown's "starving time." After all he must have gone through a decade earlier, he returned to the beauty of Virginia.

Should we be any less inspired to celebrate Virginia's First Thanksgiving? If history matters to Virginia--and there's every reason to believe it does--then should not this important chapter in our historic narrative be raised to a higher level of visibility and importance?

I think so. But it will not occur by happenstance. It will take some vigorous effort in the right places and Virginia's highest elected officials--our governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general--are all well-positioned to lift Virginia's Thanksgiving to the prominence it deserves. The present occupants in those positions have amply demonstrated high skills for focusing public attention; here's a splendid opportunity to put their many talents to work in a noble and proud cause.

In turn, they can use their powers to encourage the forces of state government to move in the right direction. For that matter, so may the 140 elected members of the General Assembly. Surely the imagination exists to push matters forward.

Could not the commonwealth's Tourism Corporation promote this event? Does not the history of Virginia's First Thanksgiving fit within the scope and purpose of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation? And, beyond state government, are there not private organizations willing and capable of making a difference?

Let us not allow Virginia's First Thanksgiving to languish in the mists of time. It could and ought to be the gift of history that never stops giving.

Gerald Baliles is the director of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. He served as Virginia's governor from 1986 to '90. This commentary first appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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