JFK and the First Thanksgiving

by Jim Longworth

Presidents are only human.

They make mistakes. But the mark of a great President is his willingness to admit when he’s wrong, and then to correct his mistake. No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama’s botched Affordable Care Act, and his broken promise to let everyone keep their existing health plan. I’m talking about John Kennedy, and how he misread history, unintentionally insulted the state of Virginia, and was compelled to make amends.

The story begins on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 1619. That’s the day 38 English settlers from the London Company, navigated their ship down the James River and onto Berkeley Hundred (Harrison’s Landing), in what is now Charles City, Va., just 20 miles upstream from Jamestown, which had been settled 12 years prior. The landing party was led by Capt. John Woodlief, who, as prescribed in the company charter, ordered a day of Thanksgiving

to be observed upon their arrival, and every Dec. 4 thereafter.

Over time, Berkeley became known for its historic firsts. The first bourbon whiskey was made there in 1621 (by a preacher no less). “Taps” was played for the first time while the Union army was encamped at Berkeley in 1862. And, of course, it was the site of America’s first Thanksgiving. More on that in a moment.

In 1907 Berkeley was purchased by John Jamieson, who had served as a Union drummer boy during the Army’s encampment at the plantation. Ownership later fell to his son (and my friend) Malcolm, who passed away in 1997. Mac loved Berkeley and was aggressive in marketing the historic site, including through the use of promotional videos and commercials, which I helped to produce. He invited the public to tour the house and grounds, sold Berkeley boxwoods and bourbon, and held an annual Thanksgiving pageant, which attracted tourists from across the country. But the celebration wasn’t always widely recognized.

One hundred years after his father beat the Yankee drums at Berkeley, Mac was upset by something another Yankee did. In the fall of 1962, President Kennedy issued his yearly Thanksgiving Proclamation in which he recognized his home state of Massachusetts as the site of America’s first Thanksgiving. And so, on Nov. 9 of that year, Virginia state Sen. John Wicker was prompted by Mac to write to the President and point out Kennedy’s faux pas. In his telegram, Wicker referenced historical records about Berkeley’s celebration, which took place one full year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth in 1620.

Later that year, Kennedy confidant and noted historian Arthur Schlesinger sent a reply to Wicker with a tongue in cheek apology from the president. According to Berkeley records, Schlesinger “attributed the error to unconquerable New England bias on the part of the White House staff.”

The following year, on Nov. 5, 1963, President Kennedy had to eat crow during his annual Thanksgiving proclamation, saying, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and Massachusetts, far from home, in a lonely wilderness, set aside a day of thanksgiving”. Kennedy’s New England bias wouldn’t allow him to disavow Plymouth entirely, but Mac was happy that Berkeley finally gained official recognition for holding the first Thanksgiving, even if it was a shared honor. Sadly it was to be Kennedy’s last such proclamation. He was assassinated 17 days later in Dallas.

Last week the airwaves were replete with Kennedy documentaries and movies to commemorate his death. Some were excellent (JFK: The Final Hours, narrated by my friend Bill Paxton) and others were sophomoric (Killing Kennedy). But good or bad, they all brought back traumatic memories of JFK’s murder. After watching several of the disturbing documentaries, I tried to make myself think of something pleasant. The holiday season was upon us, so I naturally recalled my visits with Mac Jamieson and his funny fervor over bragging rights to the first Thanksgiving. I remember him almost making me ill on two occasions. Once when he drove his car erratically over the trails of Berkeley, and the other when, knowing I didn’t drink spirits, he shamed me into sampling some Berkeley bourbon.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that I am reminded of toasting America’s first Thanksgiving. Perhaps we all need to raise our glasses now and give thanks for the family and friends we love, and for the bounty we share. Perhaps we also need to pledge to help those who are less fortunate, and who continue to struggle in an unforgiving economic downturn. Perhaps we would all do well to emulate those weary English settlers, and be thankful for just surviving another day of our long journey.

So here’s a toast to Captain Woodlief, Berkeley, old Mac, and to that Yankee President who set the record straight. Happy Thanksgiving. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).