History of the First Thanksgiving

By H. Graham Woodlief

England in the 17th Century

England in the early 17th century… Thanks to King James I, peace had been reached between Spain and England. This was after much feuding about claiming land in the New World. That peace accord opened up a new culture, allowing for colonization in the New World. Because of the peace accord people were anxious to venture across the ocean. During those years England was over populated, poverty was rampant and the woolen industry was failing badly. The woolen industry was especially hard hit in the area of Berkeley, as well as a few other areas. At that time Berkeley was a cloth manufacturing center. It is thought that the disastrous state of the woolen industry may have been a major factor in the birth of the Berkeley Company. As a result of the Berkeley Company large numbers of people came to Virginia.

Because the woolen industry had fallen so badly, people in Berkeley began agricultural endeavors in England, such as growing tobacco and other crops, to find ways to bring in income. However, the success of the tobacco experiment was short lived. The Virginia Company and King James I feared that if tobacco cultivation was successful in England it may hurt colonization in the New World and have an adverse financial impact. England really needed the land and space in America, which was in short supply in the British Isles, in order to plant crops, such as tobacco, and also to start commercial ventures. Due to that fear, the King issued a proclamation prohibiting the growing of tobacco in England for at least 5 years. That was the death knell of growing tobacco in England.

Due to the prohibition against growing tobacco, unemployment became extremely high and many people left England to venture to and settle in Virginia and other parts of the New World. They left to seek adventure and their fortunes. They wanted religious freedom and to escape the tyrannical rule of King James I, who had imposed unfair taxes on his subjects. Colonists lusted for gold and silver, while others, such as George Thorpe, wanted to spread Christianity to the Indians. The motives for coming were as diverse as the men, but all wanted a life vastly different from the one left behind in England.

The first English speaking settlement in America was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Those were harsh times in Jamestown, living conditions were terrible, the settlers were homesick, it was swampy and was very difficult to plant the land, as a very long drought occurred preventing plants from growing. The settlers also didn’t receive the supplies they were expecting from England, in order to survive, due to storms in the Atlantic. Many people became ill and died, but they kept coming to the New World, seeking a better life than they had in England. By 1610, 3 years later, only 60 out of the approximately 490 original settlers survived what was known as the Starving Time in Jamestown.

Eleven years after the settlement of Jamestown, in the spring of 1618, four gentlemen met in London to negotiate the formation of a company to start the town and hundred at Berkeley, in the colony of Virginia. Their motive was strictly profit making. Those four Gloucestershire men were William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe and John Smyth. All except Smyth were related by blood or marriage. Smyth became a family member 18 years later, when one of his daughters married Thorpe’s son.


King James I had granted a large tract of land in Virginia to the four. The land was over 8,000 acres with 3 miles of waterfront. The land grant to the Virginia Company of London shows on the Patent letters, which are dated February, 1619, just 6 months before the expedition across the Atlantic.

When the patent was applied for George Yeardley, then Governor of Virginia and one of the partners in the venture, called Berkeley “a very good and convenient” place to start a settlement. It was truly a site well situated to grow crops and begin commercial ventures. The settlers at Jamestown had not been very successful in growing crops. Berkeley was much better situated for the growing of crops.

One of the men, John Smyth of Nibley, was Historian of the Berkeley family and of Berkeley Castle in England. This was not the same John Smith of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame. As part of his duties, he recorded the settlement of Virginia from 1609 to 1622 through a collection of 38 papers and documents known as the Nibley Papers. These papers are the only known documents that chronicle the Berkeley expedition, as well as the orders for the prayerful enactment of the first Thanksgiving. They currently reside at the New York Public Library and their contents were discovered by Dr. Lyon Tyler, retired president of William and Mary College. Dr. Tyler was the son of President John Tyler. In addition to residing at the New York Public Library, transcripts of the Nibley Papers were published by the library in 1899 and by the Library of Congress in 1906. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the papers were discovered, unread and unresearched. Dr. Tyler was the first known scholar to have studied, examined and researched them and wrote an article about his discovery, which was published in The Richmond News Leader on April 3, 1931. This is probably the first time Virginians knew about this important historical event, which occurred in their state.

Dr. Tyler also made his discovery known to his young neighbor, Malcolm Jamieson, who had taken up residence at Berkeley Plantation, some 4 or 5 years earlier. If it had not been for this discovery by Dr. Tyler the historical significance of this may never have been known.

As the four adventurers met in England, plans progressed for the settlement of Berkeley Hundred in Virginia. They needed to find a leader of the expedition. Several men were considered including William Chester, another who was a surgeon from Bristol and John Woodlief.

On September 4, 1619 they commissioned John Woodlief to lead the expedition, nominating him as Captain and as the first Governor of the colony. He was from the town of Buckingham, in the county of Buckinghamshire, England and had been to the New World several times. He also had survived the “Starving Time” at Jamestown. It is amazing that he wanted to return to the beautiful countryside of Virginia after such an arduous experience at Jamestown.

Agreements were made that day between the four men and Captain Woodlief. The agreements included that the new settlement in Virginia would be called Berkeley Hundred, Virginia…… similar to Berkeley Hundred in England. As part of his duties, Woodlief would be responsible for the accounting of expenses and profits. He would also resolve disputes, update the status of transported servants and decide how the government should be set up. He also would advise on the shares of profits that would be distributed to the partners in the venture.

Woodlief learned from the tragic experience of the settlement of Jamestown. For the voyage he chose men of crafts……. they would be journeymen, joyners, carpenters, smiths, fowlers and turners…..men comfortable with doing the work required to establish a colony.

He had 5 assistants on the expedition giving him counsel as needed. They were Ferdinando Yate, John Blanchard, Richard Godfry, Rowland Painter and Thomas Coopy. All had specific areas of responsibility, once they landed. As you will hear later, Yate was responsible for chronicling the voyage across the Atlantic. Woodlief relied on them a great deal and was required on matters of importance to get a majority decision before he could proceed.

Other responsibilities Captain Woodlief had, as a part of the expedition, were to charter the vessel that would cross the Atlantic, organize the voyage, assemble all supplies and materials and once the ship landed, he would supervise the plantings and the operation of the commercial center at Berkeley.

He leased the “Good Ship Margaret” from Edward Williams of Bristol, England in mid-August of 1619. The vessel weighed 47 tons and was 35 feet long. Can you imagine a vessel 35 feet long carrying 35 settlers and Captain Woodlief for 2 ½ months across a stormy Atlantic ocean! Woodlief agreed to pay Williams 33 pounds a month or $53 U.S., in today’s dollars, to lease the vessel and hired Toby Felgate to pilot the ship. He paid him 4 pounds, 10 shillings or approximately $7 U.S., in today’s dollars, for his services.
Because of his experience on past voyages, Woodlief knew what supplies and provisions to bring on the ship. Those supplies and provisions included 8,000 biscuits and bread, 160 pounds of butter, 127 pounds of bacon and horsemeat, 60 bushels of peas, 20 bushels of wheat, 6 tons of cider, 15 gallons of aqua vitae and 5 ½ tons of beer. Water could not stay fresh in those days and could not be shipped over that period of time.

Also included were clothes, kitchen utensils, construction and agricultural tools, weapons, Bibles and 6,000 beads for Indian trade.
As a condition of the voyage each settler would be given a length of indenture and acreage of land at the end of the expedition. The indenture periods were from 3 years to 8 years and the land from 15 acres to 30 acres, depending on their status. The 5 assistants received the most favorable terms.

The Journey

So it was on September 16, 1619, 12 days after he was commissioned, Captain Woodlief departed Kingrode, Bristol, England, at 8:00 a.m. in the morning, on the Good Ship Margaret.

It was a slow start and with a southward wind their speeds were not great. On the 7th day of the voyage the winds picked up, thanks to a small gale and they were able to make better speed. Their destination was Berkeley Hundred, on the King James River, in the colony of Virginia. There were 36 stalwart men on board, including Captain Woodlief.

Ferdinando Yate was commissioned to chronicle the journey across the Atlantic. Yate’s detailed account of the voyage is a part of the Nibley Papers, which now reside at the New York Public Library.

It was a perilous journey. They encountered several bad storms and prayed almost constantly for a safe trip. On November 28, 1619 the ship arrived in the Chesapeake Bay, after 2 ½ months in the Atlantic Ocean. It was a small vessel that rocked constantly from the waves. During the voyage the settlers were homesick, there were claustrophobic conditions, they had no way to bathe and there was constant vermin infestation on the ship. Those were not very pleasant living conditions in today’s comfortable world.

The day of their arrival in the Chesapeake Bay, was the Sabbath, at which time they set anchor, went to the top of the mast and saw land. The next day, the 29th of November, a ”Shroud” storm came upon them. They attempted to weigh anchor and while doing so their capstan broke, putting the ship and its men in great danger and distress. They rode the storm out and it eventually passed.

On the 30th of November the ship moved into what are now the Hampton Roads. At this point, Captain Woodlief surveyed the landscape, went ashore and met with friends. He got an update from them since his last trip to Virginia. When he returned to the ship, the Margaret proceeded up the King James River and on December 4, 1619 dropped anchor at the Berkeley site. They had finally arrived after such a long journey!


As Clifford Dowdy noted in his book, The Great Plantation, the men were rowed ashore, placed their personal luggage on the hard ground, gazed at the woods enclosing them and listened to the complete silence.
Then, at a command from Captain Woodlief, with which they were profoundly stirred to comply, the homesick men knelt on the dried grass to pray.

As instructed by the London Company, Woodlief prayed: “We ordaine that this 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 to Almighty God”.

You see, the Berkeley Company had given a very specific list of ten instructions to the settlers when they departed England. The very first instruction was upon landing that they give a prayer of Thanksgiving for their safe voyage and to do so annually and perpetually thereafter.

America’s first official English speaking Thanksgiving had just occurred, one year and 17 days before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts and almost 2 years before the pilgrims held a 3 day Harvest Feast with their Native American friends, which is commonly thought today to be the first Thanksgiving.


Historians note that in the early days, the celebration of Thanksgiving was strictly a religious experience, focused entirely on prayer. It was a solemn affair, not a festival of food, such as our friends in Massachusetts had experienced.

On November 9, 1962 Virginia State Senator John J. Wicker sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy taking issue with President Kennedy’s 1962 Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, where full credit for Thanksgiving was given to the pilgrims in Massachusetts. Senator Wicker claimed he had already proven to the Governor of Massachusetts the validity of Virginia’s claim by simply displaying the records to him.

In response, Senator Wicker received an apologetic reply from famed Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. writing on behalf of the President. Mr. Schlesinger attributed the “error” to unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff.

The White House mended its ways. President Kennedy’s next Thanksgiving Proclamation, on November 5, 1963, 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. They gave thanks for their safety, the health of their children, the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God ”. Finally, Virginia was given its rightful recognition and place in history! To put this in historical perspective, Kennedy was assassinated, in Dallas, just 18 days later.

In addition, further historical proof is in the November 24, 1969 Congressional Record (Volume 115, Number 194), which tells the story of The Virginia First Thanksgiving. The Congressional Record gives a glowing review of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival itself. In it, Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. recognizes the officers of the festival and asks to have a Thanksgiving Prayer read into the Record. There being no objection, this was done.

It is interesting to note that on October 3, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation. Just five days prior he had received a letter from Sarah Josepha Hale, a 74 year old magazine editor, who had been advocating a national thanksgiving date for 15 years as editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Lincoln listened, where other presidents ignored her. It was at that point, that the last Thursday of November was set as a national “day of Thanksgiving and praise”. This was during the height of the Civil War. It was a very moving and inspirational proclamation and asked to “implore the Interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of a nation and restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes”……..According to “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” edited by Roy Basler, a year later the proclamation manuscript, handwritten by William Seward, then Secretary of State, was sold and its proceeds were used to benefit Union troops. It is interesting that a document that was meant to bring reconciliation to a nation was ultimately used to fund the Civil war.

In an article written in October, 1986 by Nancy G. Houser, titled “Whose Thanksgiving Is It?”, she refers to other observances of thanks being given, both before and after what we consider to be the “official” first Thanksgiving in Virginia and the New World. All of those observances were spontaneous and were not repeated on a regular basis, as was the Berkeley ritual. The annual Berkeley religious ceremony was performed as a result of specific instructions given by the London Company to do so,
it was almost two years before the Massachusetts celebration, which was a one time event based upon the recommendation of Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford and was not held because of any official proclamation from England. They held several Thanksgiving’s after that, but not on a regular basis. Massachusetts didn’t even publish a proclamation ordaining such a thanksgiving observance until 1633, 12 years after their first celebration. The Massachusetts event was a harvest feast with their Native American friends, whereas the Berkeley event was strictly religious.


The story doesn’t end here. A year later, in the autumn of 1620, another ship, “The Supply”, brought another 50 adventurers to Berkeley. The Captain of this ship was William Tracy. It is interesting to note that this ship brought over 4 times the number of alcoholic beverages compared to the voyage. Christianity was very important then, so I am not sure why the lack of focus on the second voyage other than George Thorpe, a cleric, was not as involved in the second sailing as he was in the first. It is believed that this group also participated in the second annual Thanksgiving observance at Berkeley Hundred.

On August 28, 1620, eight months after they arrived, Captain Woodlief was relieved of his duties. The London Company was disillusioned and felt like Woodlief was not bringing in enough profits from the venture and his progress was too slow.

When the Woodlief settlers arrived at Berkeley they spent a great amount of time experimenting in long term profit making ventures, such as planting mulberry trees to make silk, grape vines to make wine and they searched for iron deposits. The Berkeley Company did not believe they spent enough time on activities that would bring quick profits and produce crops and goods that could be sent to England in the short term. Because of that, Woodlief was in disfavor and was told his services were no longer needed. It is interesting to note that in 1619 a law was passed in Jamestown requiring each male settler plant and tend at least ten grape vines.
After Woodlief was relieved of his duties, he moved to land he owned at what is now Jordan Point, across the James River. His home was known as Sion Hill and remained there until after the Civil War.

George Thorpe, who had come to Berkeley in April, 1620, several months after the landing, and William Tracy, a kinsman of Richard Berkeley, were put in charge after Woodlief left. They received commissions from Richard Berkeley and John Smyth appointing them duel Governor’s of Virginia. Once appointed, the men went about their work, planting crops and shipping goods back to England.

During the winter of 1621 and 1622, the Indians had made themselves particularly friendly to the new settlers. Berkeley Hundred had never experienced any Indian hostility and Captain Thorpe, the cleric, had especially pleased the Indian “King” or chief by building him a new house. It was built “according to the English fashion”. Thorpe wanted to convert the Indians to Christianity.

Early in the morning on March 22, in 1622, just over two years after the landing, friendly groups of Indians drifted into the settlement at Berkeley Hundred. A myth is that date was Good Friday, but that is not correct. As the Indians approached, the colonist’s fierce mastiff dogs set up a roar, but their masters quickly quieted them. The colonists, feeling good about the religious season, were happy to include their Indian friends in their good fellowship. That morning the Indians milled with the colonists, made friendly small talk, and without warning, snatched up the colonist’s muskets, that were set against the wall, took their carving knives, staves, hatchets and any other implement they could find that could inflict harm and then attacked. Eleven colonists were killed that day at Berkeley, many were wounded and others got away. It is said that George Thorpe, who had befriended the Indians, was the first killed and that his body was badly mutilated. Later, it was learned that other groups of Indians had done precisely the same thing, at that exact hour, at other plantations in Virginia. Indian Chief Opechancanough led the massive uprising for 140 miles on either side of the James River. This was known as the Massacre of 1622 and abruptly ended the settlement of Berkeley and the annual celebration of Thanksgiving there, at least until 1958.

Woodlief was in England at the time of the Massacre and his family was at Jamestown, none of which were killed. Jamestown was spared the brutality of the massacre as they were prepared with muskets when the Indians came. Late the night before, the settlers were warned of the attack because of an Indian named Chanco, had been told of the impending brutality by his brother. Chanco told a settler he had befriended who rode across the river and warned the Jamestown settlers. The settlers did not allow the Indians near the settlement and they survived. Unfortunately, they did not have time or the means to warn other plantations, other than those that were close to the settlement. Berkeley was not warned.

Although the Berkeley venture ended at that point, it was the first of its kind in America to experiment with self government and personal independence. We’ve learned many lessons from that.


Some 336 years later, in 1958, the annual celebration of Thanksgiving was reborn thanks to the efforts of Virginia Senator John Wicker. In that year, the Jamieson Family, owners of Berkeley, invited members of the Woodlief family to the plantation to observe the annual event. That was the beginning of the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival, as we know it today. It continues and in 1960 the festival was incorporated and in 1961 became a non-profit organization. In 1962 it was opened to the public.

On the first Sunday in November, every year, a group of volunteers work toward keeping that promise made over 400 years ago. There are re-enactors, who stroll the grounds, re-create the landing and read the Thanksgiving proclamation, as they pray to Almighty God. Thereby, keeping the orders on the proclamation of the Berkeley Company alive!

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