'We ordain that the day of our ship's 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.'
On this day, December 4, in the year 1619, the first official Thanksgiving of English emigrants took place some months before the Pilgrim Fathers set sail in the Mayflower. Under the helmsmanship of Captain John Woodleefe, thirty-eight men, women and children survived the rigours of passage on the Margaret of Bristol to disembark at the New World. Among them was Richard Berkeley, of Berkeley in Gloucestershire, forebear (though not in direct line) of Frederick Augustus, 5th Earl of Berkeley who features in my Berkeley Trilogy.
In the year prior, the Virginia Company of London had given a land grant to Richard Berkeley and a small consortium of colleagues. The area became known as the Berkeley Hundred - and since, as the Berkeley Plantation - on the banks of the James River near Herring Creek.
Captain Woodleefe's brief was 'to erect and build a town called Barkley [sic] and to settle and plant our men and diverse other inhabitants there, to the honour of Almighty God, the enlarging of Christian religion, and to the augmentation and revenue of the general plantation in that country, and the particular good and profit of ourselves, men and servants as we hope.'
The sponsors gave detailed instructions about the erection of houses and churches for the inhabitants and a 'starter pack' of various goods, including seeds to enable the settlers' first harvest. They hoped for crops of English wheat, maize and other Virginia corn, silk grass, mulberry trees, vines, aniseed, flax and oilseeds and meadow and pasture for cattle, fish and fowl.They also anticipated that the land would yield seams of iron ore. Captain Woodleefe, as chief merchant, would have a trading monoply from the security of this established town and would do business with natives and with the English residents along the East Coast.
The fortunes and reverses of the settlement deserve a trilogy of their own. Whatever we feel about our forefathers' politics, we can only be awestruck by their courage, vision, faith and sheer grit in pioneering new terrain and laying a foundation for the prosperity of the New America.
Commission to Captain Woodleefe 4th of September, 1619 / Smyth of Nibley Papers
Transactions of the
Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society
Berkeley Plantation, Virginia
by J. E. Gethyn-Jones
1976, Vol. 94, 5-17
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