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A Tale of Two Thanksgivings

“We ordain that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantation, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

So prayed the 38 English settlers of Berkeley Hundred on December 4, 1619. Being Anglicans, they read from the Book of Common Prayer and most likely fasted. The settlers were sent by the Berkeley Company (part of a joint venture between big business and James I of England) to build a community of farms, storehouses and homes. Berkeley Hundred was located on the James River just 30 miles north of Jamestown. The colony prospered until the native Powhatans massacred the settlers on March 22, 1622.

Jamestown was founded in 1609 and struggled from a variety of problems until the settlers discovered that tobacco grew extremely well in Virginia soil. The cash generated from the export of tobacco to England fueled land appropriation from the Powhatans as old and new settlers alike expanded their tobacco fields.

The conflict over land was not new. The two parties fought the First Anglo-Powhatan War from 1610 to 1614 over land ownership. The war ended after the English captured Chief Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas and held her for ransom. While captive, she married John Rolfe and brokered a peace between her father and the English. John Rolfe also happened to be the individual to first bring tobacco seeds to Virginia.

The peace held until after the deaths of Pocahontas in 1617 and of her father a year later. After Chief Powhatan died, his brother Opchanacanough assumed power.

International tobacco demand required an ever-increasing amount of farmland for production and Opchanacanough decided that the Powhatans had ceded over enough territory to the English. He opened the Second Anglo-Powhatan War with his attack on Berkeley Hundred and several other settlements. Known as the Indian Massacre of 1622, the Powhatans killed a third of the English settlers in Virginia and the war carried on for another decade.

Meanwhile six hundred miles north, the Plymouth Company (another joint venture between big business and James I of England) landed a ship of settlers to build a community of farms, storehouses and homes. Unlike the more entrepreneurial Anglican settlers in Virginia, the English dissenters known as Puritans were primarily looking for the freedom to worship apart from the established Church of England.

As Providence would have it, the settlers of Plymouth Colony happened upon a member of the Pawtuxet Tribe who had learned English while a captive of John Smith, an English explorer who had earlier mapped the Chesapeake Bay.

Tisquantum (or Squanto for those who watch Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving program) proved invaluable as a translator between the settlers and the local Native American tribes. In the fall of 1621, the settlers and the local Native Americans held a joint three-day celebration of a good harvest. Having secured a temporary peace with the Native Americans, the colony soon became self-sufficient and prospered.

Based purely upon the calendar, the settlers at Berkeley Hundred established the earliest official Thanksgiving Day among the English colonies. They declared it a holy day set aside each year to fast and thank God for His continued blessings.  Not much else was described. Then the Powhatans wiped them out and their tradition ended. Other local Thanksgiving Days continued sporadically.

Occasionally a President would declare a day of national thanksgiving – Washington did; Jefferson didn’t – but nothing was officially enacted until 1863.  Somehow during that bloody year Congress found time to pass legislation establishing Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday. This while the President of the United States along with a coalition of Northern states were busy invading and subduing by armed force several of the Southern states.

As Virginia was one of the states beset upon by the President, the Berkeley option was not in play. The Plymouth version, brimming with Pilgrims, Native Americans, prayers, feasting, maize, inclusiveness and unity (at least until Myles Standish earned the distinction of being the man who fired the first bullet ever shot at Native Americans in New England) became the template for future celebrations.

Looking back, which Thanksgiving Day should we emulate? We have two historically accurate declarations of Thanksgiving from colonies that were organized for the same purpose but were polar opposites in practice. Feast versus fast. Idealism versus pragmatism. Manufacturing versus Agricultural. Liberalism versus conservatism. The roots of our American political dichotomy intertwine far back into our history.

Being a consumer-oriented lot, I don’t expect Americans to ever embrace a Thanksgiving Day without the trimmings. We enjoy gathering with family for turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie, football and a little black Friday shopping. We might even write a few thank you notes and say a few prayers.  We have enjoyed the freedom to emulate both for over four hundred years. And for that I am truly thankful.