Thanksgiving: A Southern tradition

Published 9:36 pm Wednesday, November 23, 2016

By Fred D. Taylor

While school children in the last few weeks have been performing plays celebrating a gathering between Pilgrims and Indians, the truth is that they got it all wrong.

Yes, I am here popping the bubble of all the kids (my niece and nephew included) who dressed in Pilgrim hats and buckled shoes, or Indian headdresses, to tell the story the history books did not want them to know.


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Despite popular American nostalgia that the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims after the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock, it actually had its beginnings just a few miles from us along the James River at present-day Berkeley (pronounced Bark-lee) Plantation in Charles City County.

The year was 1619, 12 years after the establishment of Jamestown, when a group of 38 settlers aboard the ship Margaret arrived after a 10-week journey across the treacherous Atlantic.

Upon landing, they knelt and prayed on our rich Tidewater soil, with Capt. John Woodlief proclaiming: “Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrivall at the place assigned for plantacion in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

This event was the first English Thanksgiving in the New World.

So why the big deal about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving being at Plymouth Rock? Good question. Anything more than a cursory study of colonial history will uncover the discrepancy between the dates of the first Thanksgiving.

Yet we continue today to recognize the Plymouth Thanksgiving as the first, despite clear evidence to the contrary. In fact, not only did Virginia’s Thanksgiving celebration occur first, the Pilgrims had not even landed in America yet!

The Pilgrims’ arrival came one year and 17 days later, in 1620, and their Thanksgiving celebration nearly two years later, in 1621.

Celebrations of “thanksgiving” would become deeply rooted American traditions, though, usually brought on by periods of great hardship.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress proclaimed days of Thanksgiving every year from 1778 to 1784. Likewise, George Washington issued the first Presidential proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1789, and a few of his successors followed suit.

Interestingly, Thanksgiving was not a specific day or even month, and apparently was issued on the whim of whoever was in office. Sporadically between the years 1789 and 1815, days of Thanksgiving were recognized in January, March, April, October and November.

This recognition of Thanksgiving ended in 1815, following the term of President James Madison, and a president would not issue such a proclamation for another 46 years.

That president was Jefferson F. Davis, who recognized a day of thanks, humiliation and prayer for the young Confederate States of America for Oct. 31, 1861. Not to be outdone, President Abraham Lincoln resurrected the all-but-forgotten day in the United States as well and issued a similar proclamation in April 1862.

In 1863, Thanksgiving was made a national holiday in the United States, and in 1866, the tradition of recognizing Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November was started by President Andrew Johnson.

From that time on, every sitting president has recognized Thanksgiving as a national holiday.

Nonetheless, twists in the story continue. While the holiday has been recognized since 1861, the explanations of the origins of Thanksgiving have been numerous.

For years, the residents of the Oval Office ignored Virginia’s claim to the first Thanksgiving, but that all changed in 1963. A Massachusetts Yankee named John F. Kennedy Jr. took the risk of alienating his constituency back home and told the rest of the story.

President Kennedy honored Massachusetts’ and Virginia’s claims in his proclamations of 1963 at the urging of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a noted historian and political scientist. After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned Virginia twice, President Jimmy Carter recognized her in 1979, and the last to recognize Virginia’s claim was President Ronald Reagan in 1985.

Today, the struggle to tell the true story of Thanksgiving continues in classrooms across America, and even more so here, where it all started. For a number of years, a group of concerned citizens has organized an annual festival to celebrate the first thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation, and each year they recreate that historic event on the shores of the James River.

For Virginians, as we approach America’s 410th anniversary, the need to tell the real Thanksgiving story is all the more important. So as you prepare for Thanksgiving this year, take a few minutes to reflect and to pass “the rest of the story” along to others. Every little bit helps in getting the truth out.

As for me, I have plenty to be thankful for, but in honor of those courageous 38 who arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619, I will celebrate Virginia-style with Smithfield ham and Chesapeake Bay oysters, instead of turkey and stuffing.

Fred D. Taylor is a native of Suffolk, a graduate of Old Dominion University and the Mercer University School of Law, and a partner with the law firm Bush & Taylor, P.C. Fred can be reached for questions or comments about his column via e-mail at