WASHINGTON -- Imagine a Thanksgiving Day without Pilgrims. No turkey, no cranberries, no happy celebrations with family and friends crammed around the extended dining-room table.
Picture this instead: a solemn day of fasting, meditation, and introspection, followed by a light meal of roasted oysters or Virginia ham.
That, some Virginians say, was how the real "first" Thanksgiving in the New World was celebrated Dec. 4, 1619, by a group of men who had just landed on the shores of the James River at what is now Berkeley Plantation, two years before the Pilgrims' harvest feast in Massachusetts.
The Virginia Thanksgiving was lost to history for more than 300 years, due in part, they say, to a massacre by Native Americans, the Civil War, and the Yankee historians who "absconded" with it. The South's historic disregard for the holiday as a Northern tradition didn't help, either. (In the 19th and even into the 20th century, businesses and state and city offices in parts of the South stayed defiantly open.)
Now, a small band of Virginia diehards, a small, private nonprofit group known as the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival Inc., says it is determined to set the record straight. But there is heavy freight in taking on such American icons as the Pilgrims and a mythical narrative of cooperation, feasting, and friendship across races that for more than a century has become a legendary American story.
In other words, the Virginians haven't gotten very far.
Children still dress up in buckskin as Squanto, friend to the Pilgrims, or in square black hats with square buckles on their shoes for the Thanksgiving pageant. Almost everyone knows the Mayflower.
But even today, few people outside Charles City, site of the Berkeley landing and one of Virginia's most rural areas, have heard of the Virginia Thanksgiving. And the state's own standards for what to teach in public schools include lesson plans on the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving and no mention of Virginia's.
"If they want to teach that, that's fine, but it's inaccurate," Jamie Jamieson said with a sigh. He owns Berkeley Plantation and organizes an alternate "first" Thanksgiving feast on the first Sunday of each November. "We're working on it," he said.
Jamieson stands on his farm on the banks of the James, downriver from a small brick archway commemorating the Berkeley Thanksgiving. Push a bright green button and a loudspeaker, wired to a tree, tells the story:
In 1619, 38 men, led by Captain John Woodlief, sailed from Bristol, England, on the good ship Margaret to seek fortune in the New World. Upon landing in Virginia, they waded ashore, opened their instructions from the Berkeley Co., which sponsored their expedition, and learned that the first order of business was to drop to their knees.
"Wee ordaine that the Day of our ship [arrival at] the place assigned for the plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God," the order read.
But the Virginians at Berkeley and at Jamestown -- the earliest British settlement in the colonies -- were a bit more antagonistic with the Powhatans. When the dandies and fortune hunters of Jamestown first encountered them eating roast oysters and wild strawberries on the beach, they chased the Powhatans off and devoured their food, according to local historian Pat Butler.
By 1622, the Berkeley settlement was wiped out in a massacre by Native Americans.
The Virginia Thanksgiving story was completely forgotten until 1931, when a local historian was noodling around the New York Public Library and came upon letters, papers, and the orders from the Berkeley Co.
Since the time of President Abraham Lincoln, who first proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, the imagery of Thanksgiving was strongly tied to the Pilgrims and New England.