by Henry Lane Hull
With the coming of Thanksgiving tomorrow, I have been thinking, as I do each year, of my first visit to the site of the first Thanksgiving in the English-speaking New World. My parents were inveterate history students, always taking me to places where history had happened. One summer we went to visit Berkeley Plantation on the banks of the James River in Charles City County.
After buying our admission tickets we waited for the docent to arrive to begin the tour. A middle-aged gentleman soon appeared and began recounting the history of the plantation with a level of enthusiasm I never had experienced on any previous tour, nor have I seen since that day.
He explained in great detail all that he knew of the place, from its prehistory to the arrival of the English colonists, noting their making of the first bourbon whiskey on the site, through the ownership of the Harrison family and the birth of the Ninth President, William Henry Harrison, in an upstairs bedroom. He told us about Taps being composed on the property during the Civil War by a bugler from the Union Army, Oliver W. Norton.
Most of all, he dwelled on Berkeley being the site of the first Thanksgiving in the English-speaking colonies. He explained the relationship between the native peoples and the English settlers and their ability to deal with each other on peaceful terms. Most importantly, he noted that the Berkeley Thanksgiving of 1619 antedated that of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts by one year. At that point his passion for the place had caught the interest and imagination of everyone on the tour.
Our guide that day was Malcolm Jamieson, not merely a volunteer docent, but indeed the owner of the plantation. By the end of the tour, after identifying himself, he spoke of the 20th-century history of Berkeley, from the time his father had purchased the property in 1907 down to that very day. He said at the age of 19 he had inherited the plantation after his father’s death and that saving it from decay and undertaking its restoration had been his life’s work.
Jamieson clearly was a man who arose each morning with his mind filled with plans for how he could spend the day improving his home and how he could share it with others. He described the state of rampant decline in which he found the mansion when he assumed ownership and how he had labored to clean and preserve it for future generations.
He told us that the price of our admission tickets went for the upkeep and advancement of the on-going work and that when we should return we would be able to see the unfolding of new plans made possible by visitors’ contributions. He emphasized that Berkeley was a private property and that tax monies were not being used to support his undertakings.
When our tour ended he stayed with the group, eager to answer questions or add additional information, if any could be added after his extensive presentation. I think we were the last to say goodbye. Twenty years ago this month, shortly before Thanksgiving, when I read his obituary, noting that he had died at 88 in the barn of the plantation, I thought of how useful his life had been, both for the preservation of one of America’s most historic sites and for the example he set to the thousands of tourists who witnessed the fruits of his lifelong project to manifest the dynamism of tradition as they passed his way.
Since that day, Jamieson and Berkeley Plantation have been part of my thoughts on Thanksgiving each November. Happy Thanksgiving!