Quick: where was the first Thanksgiving
held in America? If you answered Plymouth Plantation then either you remember
your elementary school history very well, or you're probably a New Englander
like me. If you answered Berkeley Plantation in the state of Virginia, however,
then you've probably been to the Berkeley Plantation historical site, a site
that seeks to set the record straight (as it sees it) on the real origins of
Thanksgiving. In early August, I had occasion to visit this beautiful,
sprawling site along the James River, and I was struck by its fixation with
historical origin stories. The plantation grounds feature several examples of a
60 year campaign to claim that Thanksgiving was celebrated first at Berkeley, a
full year before the Pilgrims recorded their Thanksgiving feast with their
Native American allies. Berkeley literature points out that this thanksgiving
was celebrated with a group prayer immediately upon settlers' disembarkation in
the New World after their harrowing, months-long voyage to the Chesapeake
region. This is altogether different than a Thanksgiving feast, of course, but
the content and purpose of said Thanksgiving seems to matter less to Berkeley's
operators than the simple claim of having been the originator of the tradition.
The first Thanksgiving......or is it?
Berkeley does not stop with that claim, though. Based on a 300 year old letter noting that plantation residents evinced an unusual affinity for the distillation of whiskey out of corn, the site claims to have housed the first distillery in the New World. It's hard to imagine that the rough-hewn settlers of the older Jamestown colony weren't producing whiskey long before Berkeley settlers made their way across the ocean, but Berkeley seems comfortable to rest its claim on this single document. Unfortunately, this preoccupation with origin stories and defending Berkeley's historical pride of place represents a lost opportunity to provide a much more meaningful historical education at the site. The staff at the plantation was unfailingly polite, patient, attentive, and gracious, but they also seemed unequipped to explain to visitors what life and labor was like at Berkeley and how it changed over the nearly 400 years of its existence for the diverse peoples who lived there: Native American, European, African, Caribbean; slave and free.
Re-enactment of colonial whiskey-making. A
proud Berkeley tradition?
Established in 1619, Berkeley Plantation
has a long history, and a significant portion of that history involves slave
labor. By the time Benjamin Harrison built his Georgian mansion on the site in
1726, he had begun accumulating slaves to work the land. Eventually, over 100
slaves tended tobacco on the sprawling plantation. By the time of the Civil
War, only about 30 slaves worked the estate, which mostly produced wheat and
corn by that point. Flanked on either side by two-story, brick outbuildings,
the mansion clearly required a substantial staff of slaves to operate the
household. Yet, beyond indicating that there was only one surviving inventory
of slaves from the antebellum period, the guided tour offered no descriptions
of slave labor or slave life at Berkeley. Sadly, there appeared to be plenty of
evidence to offer a rather full account of slaves' activities there. A scale
model of the plantation in the antebellum period showed half a dozen outbuildings
fronting the mansion, which no longer exist. These buildings included a
carpentry shop, smithy, laundry house, and other work buildings. These
structures almost certainly would have been built through slave labor, and
slaves would have performed the work in these buildings for much, if not all,
of the structures' existence. The massive plantation clearly mixed industry and
agriculture on a large scale in its heyday, and it very likely employed free as
well as slave labor. Yet, the site's literature and tour offered little insight
into the plantation as a major site of economic activity or its impact on the
diverse communities along the James River. Nor did it shed light on the working
relationships of free and enslaved, white and black laborers.
The front gate at Berkeley Plantation
Instead of taking on these controversial but potentially illuminating issues, the site engages in relatively meaningless and unavailing efforts to prove it originated certain long-lived cultural traditions. Would it change the cultural import of Thanksgiving if it were begun at Berkeley and not Plymouth? Would either place cease to have a meaningful or august history if it were found not to have originated this tradition? The value of historical sites is not attributable to their role in originating specific cultural or historical traditions. Rather, their value lay in what they can tell us about our shared past, which is a much more meaningful contribution to public history education.