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The Real First Thanksgiving

No, I'm not talking about the Pilgrims who, as stated in their own Mayflower Compact, sailed to the "Northerne parts of Virginia" in 1620. (There was no Massachusetts colony yet.) That well-known Pilgrim "thanksgiving" came years after one I'm talking about.

I refer to a thanksgiving celebrated further south in Virginia on the north bank of the James River in early December 1619. The charter for the new Berkeley Plantation commanded that the day of the safe arrival of the settlers "…shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving…"

We tend to be fascinated by "firsts" and "biggests," etc. No doubt, there've been many "thanksgivings" in many cultures for many reasons. The one at Berkeley was certainly not the first. Those who arrived in Virginia with Captain John Smith in 1607 had given thanks for their safe arrival. However, the settlers at Berkeley were ordered to make their thanksgiving perpetual.

They had a great deal for which to give thanks. Certainly high on the list was safe arrival in Virginia. They were also lucky to have arrived in a colony in which a miniature Parliament called the General Assembly had just been established the previous summer. This was literally the introduction of representative government into European America. The primitive yet strong and growing seeds of individual liberty and rights for the "common man" which came from the Magna Carta and from English Common Law were now permanently established in Virginia soil.

Another thing for which those settlers could be thankful was that the deadly "common storehouse" (socialist) system had lost favor and was rapidly being replaced by private ownership of land for the common man. Pocahontas' husband John Rolfe wrote in 1616 of "every man sitting under his fig tree in safety, gathering and reaping the fruits of their labors with much joy and comfort." Rolfe, who served in that first General Assembly in 1619, was the great hero who saved the fledgling democracy through his entrepreneurial efforts with tobacco.

Rolfe's friend Ralph Hamor described the classic failure of socialism in Virginia. "For formerly, when our people were fed out of the common store and labored jointly in the manuring of the ground and planting corn, glad was the man that could slip from his labor. Nay, the most honest of them in a general business would not take so much faithful and true pains in a week as now he will do in a day."

November 28, 2003