Was the first Thanksgiving actually in Virginia? The descendant of one settler says no question.

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Some historians argue the first Thanksgiving was actually in Virginia, not Massachusetts. More than 400 years later, a descendent of the man who marked the occasion continues to share his ancestor’s story. 

In 1619, Captain John Woodlief and his crew sailed the ship named ‘Margaret’ across the Atlantic. Captain Woodlief was given very specific instructions from the Berkeley Company in England to give thanks once they landed on the shores of the James River.

“They were told to do that annually and perpetually from that day on,” said Graham Woodlief, a descendent of the captain. “From what we know, it is the first official Thanksgiving ceremony in English North America — two years before the Pilgrims had their Thanksgiving in Plymouth and a year and 17 days to be exact before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.”

The recognition didn’t come without controversy though.

In the early 1960s, state Sen. John Wicker hand-delivered two turkeys to leaders in Massachusetts — a snub to stake Virginia’s claim to the holiday. Wicker later sent a telegram to the White House to inform then-President John F. Kennedy that his 1962 Thanksgiving Proclamation was wrong. He received a response from the White House historian, who blamed the mistake on their “unconquerable New England bias.”

“So it stands as history that John F. Kennedy recognized the first Thanksgiving as being the in Virginia and not Massachusetts,” Woodlief said.

Every fall, Woodlief welcomes thousands to the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival to remember this history. This year, the coronavirus pandemic forced them to cancel it for the first time.

“We’ve carried it on since 1958 so that’s why it was very meaningful to have to cancel the festival this year,” Woodlief said.

In a year that has been anything but traditional, Woodlief hopes Virginians will continue to honor the state’s role in history while staying safe at home.

“It could, should and ought to be the gift of history that never stops giving,” said Woodlief, quoting a former governor. “Virginians should know about it and they should recognize it each year as being the true first Thanksgiving.”

Woodlief said they plan to bring back the festival in 2021 as long as the coronavirus pandemic is behind us. He said it is typically held on the first Sunday in November at the Berkeley Planation.

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