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Among the owners of Berkeley Plantation were two presidents and a signer of the Declaration of Independence./Berkeley Plantation

While Thanksgiving and Massachusetts Pilgrims are intimately embedded together in American tradition, the fact is we need to look back 400 years, to Dec. 4, 1619, to discover the first English Thanksgiving in the New World. On that date, a group of 35 settlers, led by Captain John Woofdlief, arrived at the present-day site of Berkeley Plantation. They had traveled across the Atlantic Ocean from Bristol, England, and up the James River from Jamestown.

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Berkeley Plantation

The newly arrived colonists expressed thanks for their safe arrival and proclaimed: “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.”

The tradition of an annual Thanksgiving festival at Berkeley Plantation continues this year on Nov. 3, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Entertainment during the day includes live colonial music and the Chickahominy Tribal Dancers, craft and artisan demonstrations, storytelling, both corn and hay mazes, and colonial games. The highlight comes at 3 p.m. with the reenactment of the original Thanksgiving service. (

About Berkeley Plantation

Berkeley (, probably the best known of the five James River Plantations between Richmond and Williamsburg, opens a visitor’s eyes to a lot more than just the first Thanksgiving. In the lineage of owners, Benjamin Harrison V was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and presided as Congress met as a “committee of the whole” to debate Thomas Jefferson’s declaration. His son, William Henry Harrison, served as the ninth President of the United States, and grandson Benjamin Harrison, became the 23rd president.

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Virginia artist Sidney King captured the first Thanksgiving in the English colonies in this painting./Berkeley Plantation

The plantation was occupied by Gen. George McLellan’s troops during the Civil War. During the occupation, Gen. Daniel Butterfield composed “Taps,” the familiar call first played there by his bugler, O.W. Norton. Exhibits also tell stories of the first commercial shipyard and whiskey production at the plantation.

Guided tours of the historic home are fun and bring a lot more to light. Chesterfield, Va., residents Melvin and Lynnette Boyd didn’t know what to expect when they started the tour, but said they found the home, outbuildings and exhibits remarkably enjoyable.

Also in 1619

The year 1619 also saw the first representative legislative assembly in America (Jamestown, July 30-Aug.4), the first recruitment of women in significant numbers to join the colony, and the arrival of the first recorded enslaved Africans in August. (

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