Thursday, November 24, 2016

Day Twenty-Four: Thanksgiving

Day 24: Write about how your ancestors celebrated Thanksgiving. Is it their first in America? What did they eat, and who were their dinner guests? What are they grateful for? Get other family members to collaborate.

My Ragsdale ancestors would have celebrated Thanksgiving in Virginia in remembrance of "the" first Thanksgiving, which Virginians actually celebrated before the Pilgrims of Massachusetts! Because of the 1644 Virginia Indian uprising, which killed all but Godfrey Ragsdale (my 8th great-grandfather) any celebration they would have had in the 17th century most likely would not have included eating with the Indians. As I imagine their meal, I cannot help but think of meals I have had in the taverns of Colonial Williamsburg, where the food is delicious, but has more of a "textured" feel to it. For instance, the Kings Arms Tavern Sweet Potatoes recipe has a "whole foods" feel to it, where the potatoes are not whipped or smooth, like we often think of potatoes today... There is a chunkier, more fibrous element to that delicious dish...and I believe my 17th century ancestor's food would have tasted like that as well. Their Thanksgiving would have been personal and private, as there was no official Thanksgiving Day until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation.

For more information about Thanksgiving in Virginia...


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.

From the Berkeley Plantation website,

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