JFK and the first Thanksgiving

Presidents are only human. They make mistakes. No, I’m not talking about Barack Obama’s broken promise to let everyone keep their existing health plan, or his broken promise to stay out of Iraq. 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 December 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, Virginia, just 20 miles upstream from Jamestown, which had been settled twelve years prior. The landing party was led by Captain John Woodlief, who, as prescribed in the company charter, ordered a day of Thanksgiving to be observed upon their arrival, and every December 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 that 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 that 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 November 9th of that year, Virginia State Senator 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 November 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 proclamation. He was assassinated 17 days later in Dallas.

The holiday season is now upon us, and it’s a time for being thankful, celebrating with friends and family, and remembering fondly those who are no longer with us. And so I recall 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 historic Berkeley, and the other when, knowing I didn’t drink spirits, he shamed me into sampling some Berkeley bourbon.

Perhaps, though, it is 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 a still weakened economy. 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 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).