Our Berkeley ancestors

Wee 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.

The above passage is inscribed at the site of the first Thanksgiving in America. As most Virginians know, this solemn occasion occurred in the Old Dominion more than a year before settlers reached the shores of New England. Though American tradition often leans toward the pilgrims of Plymouth and their enormous feast, the case of Virginia settlers giving thanks first is overwhelming. Not that both settlements weren’t grateful to be delivered to the New World, but the Virginia Thanksgiving is often relegated to a footnote rather than the origin of a truly American holiday.

The story of the first Thanksgiving at the “Berkeley Hundred” settlement (present day Charles City County) is one of a simple occasion lacking the historical and literary flare of Plymouth’s John Bradford or Jamestown’s John Smith. Berkeley was settled by colonists from the London Company led by Captain John Woodlief. The settlers were ordered by their charter to give thanks to God following their landing in America, which occurred about 30 miles up the James River from Jamestown.

Thanksgiving was celebrated on December 4, 1609 by Woodlief and 37 other settlers. It was to be celebrated each year thereafter in accordance to the Berkeley charter.

Americans today may ask why giving thanks was so important. The answer is simple when looking at the early history of the English colonies. Colonists came to the New World knowing that the odds of surviving were not good. There was the failed colony on stormy Roanoke Island ( in present day North Carolina) by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580s which vanished completely. The Jamestown settlement of 1607, in which Woodlief had participated, was nearly wiped out by starvation and disease during its first two years.

Arriving safely was a feat in itself and the Berkeley settlers made sure they gave thanks. They, like the many others who came later, had broken their bonds with the Old World hoping for a new and better life in Virginia.

The Berkeley settlement grew to a population of nearly 100 before it was utterly destroyed by an Indian attack in 1621. This was the day-to-day reality of life in the New World. Settlers not taken by starvation or disease still had to deal with the initial inhabitants of the territory. That was the risk many early Virginians were willing to take in leaving Europe and civilization.

While not as well known as the Jamestown settlement, the Berkeley colonists were grateful for the opportunity to settle in Virginia and their Thanksgiving set an example for Virginians of following generations. Not long after the settlement landed, the first colonial government was established bringing another “first” to the New World and the world in general. This was a government based on a philosophy that government derives its power from the governed.

And for that, Virginians are truly thankful.

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