The hidden history

November 27, 2003|By Andrew Reiner

ON THIS DAY, our thoughts naturally turn to images of Pilgrims looking carefree and well groomed, as they do in decorations everywhere. Of course, the Pilgrims were neither, because their lives were short and brutish and looking good in black was the least of their worries.

This is just one of the common fallacies we have about Thanksgiving and the people we credit with its founding. (Another one, of course, is that the Pilgrims were the first English people to settle in the New World; but 14 years before they stepped on Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, Va., became the first English settlement.)

Perhaps the biggest fallacy we've had is that the Pilgrims held the first day of thanksgiving in this land. According to historic interpreters at Jamestown and nearby Berkeley Plantation, they have bragging rights.

They say that the first time a day of thanksgiving was held was when 38 men arrived from England Dec. 4, 1619 at Berkeley Hundred, now called Berkeley Plantation. They were supposed get to work building a storehouse and assembly hall once they arrived, but they remembered that they first had an obligation to fulfill. Before the ship departed, the owners of the 8,000-acre parcel handed Capt. John Woodlief, a Jamestown veteran who had survived the notorious Starving Time of 1608-9, a document that he was supposed to read aloud immediately upon arrival.

On the sloping shores of the James River, with everyone kneeling, Mr. Woodlief read the proclamation, which insisted that "the day of our ships (sic)arrivall (sic) at the place assigned for plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept (sic) holy as a day of thanksgiving ... "

By all accounts, the founders of Berkeley Hundred kept a thanksgiving every Dec. 4 (historians don't know if this celebration included food) until 1622, when many were massacred during an Indian raid and the nascent settlement was disbanded. So there it was: Before the Pilgrims would break wishbones with the Wampanoags in what is now Massachusetts, early Virginians had unknowingly made history by staging the first official English day of thanks in the New World.

A nagging question remains, though.

Why, if we have records of this celebration, haven't we been giving credit where credit is due on the last Thursday of November each year? Historic interpreters at Jamestown and many Southern critics point to anecdotal evidence for saying that the reason has to do with the Civil War. After the South's loss, they say, northern politicians and newspapermen -- seeking to disable the South on all fronts -- discredited the region's historical contributions, thereby erasing in the public memory such early marks on the timeline as Jamestown and the Berkeley Hundred's Thanksgiving.

Another reason that we probably wouldn't celebrate Thanksgiving on Dec. 4 has to do with image. Unlike the Pilgrims who came here searching for a place to worship freely, the Berkeley folks didn't aspire to such morally noble pursuits. They were looking to expand the empire of King James I and to make a royal killing themselves by sending back home hulls packed with such commodities as lumber, tobacco and silk. An American ideal that they represented was capitalism, and that seems a crass thing for which to set aside a day of thanks.

Still, I wonder: Even if we amend the history books after all this time, would we, Americans, want the story about Berkeley Hundred to supplant that of Plymouth? Because myth is stronger than truth; it has to do not with how a people see themselves, but how they want to see themselves.

So far we've been very content with representing our beloved Pilgrims as if they were friendly but hardy tour guides at a museum, the kind of icons for which we are proud. Will we accept a small band of pious tobacco farmers instead?

Andrew Reiner teaches writing to middle school students at St. James Academy in Monkton.

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