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America’s First Official Thanksgiving

Located on the banks of the James River in Charles City County, Va., is the Berkeley Plantation, a three-story brick mansion with a lot of history.

Built by Benjamin Harrison IV, it is the birthplace of descendants Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States; and the ancestral home of Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president.

But along with a list of prominent residents, the Berkley Plantation is also the purported site of the first official American Thanksgiving.

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Now, if you are anything like me, I was quick to dispute this. After all, especially being a New Englander, we were all taught the first Thanksgiving took place in the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. When the Mayflower arrived on the shores of Massachusetts, with its 102 passengers and about 30 crewmembers, it was welcomed by a harsh November climate. Due to exposure, disease and shortages of food, only 53 Pilgrims survived their first New England winter.

Were it not for the help of Squanto and the Wampanoag people, those 53 Pilgrims may not have had anything to be thankful for. Squanto is known for teaching the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow crops, as well as acting as interpreter between them and the Wampanoag. Along with Squanto’s help, the Wampanoag leader Massasoit supplied the Pilgrims with food the first winter when supplies from England fell short.

Due to the help they received, the surviving Pilgrims of the Mayflower in early autumn of 1621 enjoyed their first successful harvest. To celebrate the occasion, a three-day feast was held attended by Massasoit, about 90 of his people, Squanto and the Pilgrims. This three-day event of games, singing and dancing while two cultures sat down sharing a meal is what has been romanticized by history as our first Thanksgiving.

However, a historian working at the Berkeley Plantation was kind enough to explain that the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving was strictly a religious observance. In the past it revolved entirely around days of prayer.

Thanksgiving was not an occasion designed with the sole purpose of eating until your stomach explodes (followed up by hours of football) like it has become today.  The Berkeley Plantation also argues there is no evidence that the Pilgrims declared their festival as a Thanksgiving.

Due to overpopulation, unemployment, poverty and a failing woolen industry, people in England looked to the New World as an opportunity for a better life. Looking for religious freedom, fortune and a bit of adventure, many boarded ships to settle in Virginia Colony. While many settlers fought to survive the horrible living conditions in Jamestown, four men in England planned settlement of what would become known as the Berkeley Hundred in Virginia.

With an 8,000-acre land grant along the James River from the London Company, William Throckmorton, Richard Berkeley, George Thorpe and John Smyth looked to make their fortune in tobacco crops.  Together, they commissioned Captain John Woodlief to lead the expedition and the assignment of establishing a government for the Berkeley Hundred.

On Sept. 16, 1619, Throckmorton, Berkeley, Thorpe, Smyth and Woodlief boarded the Good Ship Margaret in Kingrode, Bristol, England. Margaret carried a total of 38 men, all handpicked by Woodlief for their strength and skill. Also on board were large supplies of food, tools, weapons, construction and agricultural tools – as well as goods to trade with the natives.

Barely surviving the two and a half-month journey across the stormy Atlantic, the 47-ton, 35-foot-long ship finally arrived at its destination on Dec. 4, 1619. Once all 38 men were rowed to shore with their personal belongings, they all knelt as Captain Woodlief led them in prayer.

 

Following the specific requests of the London Company, Woodlief declared, “We ordaine that this day of our ships arrival, at the place assigned for plantacon, in the land of Virginia, shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

And it is this well-documented event that the Berkeley Plantation believes is the first official American Thanksgiving.

It is hard to deny the documents; the fact is this event took place almost two years before the Pilgrims’ harvest celebration – and it fits the traditional meaning of Thanksgiving. Yet the Berkeley Plantation cannot deny our modern national holiday, declared by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, more closely resembles the celebration of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony.

Regardless of where it was originally held, and our need as humans to always be the first, to me it has always been the spirit of the holiday that’s most important. It is about being tolerant and learning to appreciate each other’s differences, which is something our colonist ancestors did not excel at despite the stories we’ve been taught.

The holiday also serves as a reminder to be thankful for, and celebrate, the positive aspects in our lives – such as time with our family, friends and good health. In the end, these are important lessons that should be remembered throughout the year, beyond our one-day celebration of overdosing on turkey and pumpkin pie.

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Haunted by a Queen’s Broken Heart

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Most people get into paranormal investigation for their love and interest in the supernatural. For me, that was not the case. Although my family and I shared several unexplainable experiences, it was my love of history that pulled me in.

Paranormal investigation has brought me to historic locations across the United States and around the world. These locations opened my eyes to places and people I never knew existed. Many of their stories, which are stranger than any fiction, have left me amazed, horrified and even inspired. One of the stories that still comes to mind is a famous 12th century English castle, believed to be haunted by a queen’s broken heart.

Castle Rising Castle, built in 1140 AD, is located in the English countryside. This beautiful, old stone structure stands surrounded by a wall of dirt carpeted with grass and wild flowers. Inside its walls lay a labyrinth of rooms connected by narrow passageways and spiral staircases. It is within these passageways, staircases and rooms that people claim to see unexplainable shadow figures, and hear the sounds of footsteps and inconsolable sobbing. To get a better understanding of this supposed haunt, let’s take a look at the life of a previous resident who locals believe is responsible for the activity.

Queen Isabella of France was born to King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre in Paris around 1295. From the time Isabella was an infant, her father had promised her in marriage to King Edward II of England to resolve territorial conflicts between France and England.

As a child, following the death of her mother, Isabella was raised by the family’s nurse. Growing up in palaces around Paris, she was given a good education and developed a strong love for books covering topics such as history, astrology, geometry and romance. She grew to be known for her high level of intelligence, charm, diplomatic ways and beauty. However it was a rare talent she developed of rallying people to follow her that would eventually lead to the fall of her husband.

At the age of 12, on January 25, 1308, Isabella married King Edward II of England at Boulogne-sur-Mer. Their marriage was hardly a story of “happily ever after.” From the beginning of their marriage her husband King Edward was rumored to have questionable relationships with other men he had taken a particular liking to. In many ways he was known to have held these men in higher regard than he did Isabella. It was then up to this child bride to use her intelligence and diplomatic nature to find her place within the marriage and political arena.

Piers Gaveston — a soldier described as arrogant, reckless and headstrong — was the first of her husband’s favorites that Isabella was forced to contend with. Although Edward held Gaveston in his good graces, he was strongly disliked by the English barons and Isabella’s father King Philip IV of France. This led to his brief exile to Ireland. After his return to England, the baron’s dislike for Gaveston caused his execution in 1311 following Edward’s failed campaign against Scotland.

Having narrowly escaped capture by the Scots, and despite the civil war that broke out in England against Edward and Gaveston, Isabella stood by her husband. Turning to her family back in France, she wrote asking her uncles for their support of her husband while she worked to make allies of her own.

During this time of turmoil in England, Isabella gave birth to the future king Edward III and soon found herself once again second in her husband’s eyes.

While Edward looked to get revenge for Gaveston’s death, he found a new favorite and confidant in Hugh Despenser the younger.  Being the same age as Edward, Hugh Despenser also shared common enemies. As England struggled through famine, financial problems, continuous failed campaigns against Scotland led by Edward and his power struggle with the barons, Isabella tried, unsuccessfully, to work with Hugh Despenser. The barons who also disliked Hugh, reached out to Isabella asking her to publicly request that Edward exile him to prevent a war.

The Despenser’s exile was short lived. It wasn’t long before Edward formed a plan to bring back Hugh while defeating the barons. Together Edward and Hugh ruled and imposed a harsh revenge confiscating land, and imprisoning or executing their enemies along with punishing their enemies’ extended family members. They eventually turned their sights on Isabella, leaving her behind to fend for herself during one of Edward’s campaigns against the Scottish. They stripped her of her land and household, arrested and imprisoned her French staff. The custody of her children were given to the Despensers after she refused to take an oath of loyalty to them. Isabella, betrayed by her husband, now looked to take radical actions against him and Hugh Despenser the younger.

As tensions between England and France continued to rise, Isabella saw a chance to act. When Edward refused to pay homage to her brother, King Charles IV of France, her uncle began attacking and taking land under English control. Afraid to leave England — because he thought the barons would use the opportunity to rebel against him and the Despensers — he sent Isabella to France as an ambassador. To mend the tension created by Edward’s disrespect, Isabella agreed to a truce promising her son Edward III would come to France to pay homage in his father’s behalf.

With her son’s arrival, Isabella’s plan was put into action when she refused to return to England. Edward II began sending urgent messages to King Charles for the return of Isabella and his son Edward III, to which Charles responded that the “queen has come of her own will and may freely return if she wishes. But if she prefers to remain here, she is my sister and I refuse to expel her.”

Isabella and Edward’s marriage was clearly over. Dressing as a widow she publicly claimed that it was Hugh Despenser that destroyed their marriage. She then fell in love with Roger Mortimer.

Roger Mortimer was an English lord, husband and father of 12 who had been arrested and imprisoned at the Tower of London by Edward II. Following his escape from the Tower, he fled to France for safety where he was eventually introduced to Isabella. As Isabella worked to assemble a court she also promised her son in marriage to Philippa, daughter of count William I of Hainault, in exchange for a large dowry. With the dowry and a loan from her brother Charles, Isabella and Roger raised an army to defeat their common enemies, Edward II and the Despensers.

After setting sail from France with their army, Isabella and Roger landed in England with little resistance. As their army swept inland, it only continued to grow in size as others opposed to Edward II’s regime joined her forces. As word of Isabella’s success and advance reached Edward, he managed to flee to Wales.  After recovering her children from the Despensers, Edward and Hugh were finally captured.

As punishment, Hugh Despenser was dragged by a horse and presented to Isabella and Roger in front of a large crowd. He was then hanged, castrated and drawn and quartered, while his father Hugh Despenser the elder was captured, killed and fed to the local dogs. Most of Edward and Hugh’s major supporters were executed while those with a smaller role were pardoned. As for Edward II, he was deposed and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life only to die a sudden and mysterious death in which the possibility of Isabella and Roger’s involvement is still debated.

Following the arrest of Edward II, Prince Edward was confirmed as Edward III. Being far too young to lead the country, Isabella was appointed regent. Together, Isabella and Roger Mortimer ruled over England for four years. In those four years the pair became obsessed with accumulating wealth and land, while their former supporters began to question Isabella’s rule and Roger’s behavior.

Isabella’s son Edward III then married and became increasingly annoyed by Roger’s display of power. After working quietly to gather support, Edward III followed through with his plot to take control of England. Surprising Isabella and Roger at Nottingham Castle with 23 armed men, Edward III arrested Roger. Isabella begged her son to have mercy on her lover, and while she avoided execution, Roger was not so lucky. Though Edward III did show him some mercy — by not having him disemboweled or quartered.

After spending a short time under house arrest at Windsor Castle, Isabella moved into her own castle, Castle Rising. It is here that Isabella was reported to have suffered from fits of madness over the death of her love Roger Mortimer.

Isabella was promised in marriage to Edward II as an infant. She was a young woman who had a love for romance novels only to become a queen that was unloved and betrayed by her king. She then gave birth to a son who would grow to execute the only man she ever loved.

Could Queen Isabella be haunting the halls of Rising Castle, still mourning the death of Roger Mortimer? No one could really say for sure, but this is what some locals believe. Learning her story breathed life into what was otherwise just a beautiful stone shell, known as Rising Castle.

Despite Isabella’s flaws and the fact that history has dubbed her as the She-wolf of France, it was hard not to be impressed by her determination and accomplishments. It is also upsetting to think of her still roaming the halls of Rising Castle grieving, hundreds of years after Roger Mortimer’s death.