On September 8, 1565, curious and perhaps a bit bemused members of the indigenous Timucuan tribe watched 800 newly arrived white European colonists gather around a makeshift altar. Father Francisco Lopez, who was also a captain of one of the ships in the tiny fleet, then performed the first Catholic mass in North America, a mass of thanksgiving, for their safe crossing of Columbus’ tempestuous and unpredictable “Ocean Sea.” Father-Captain Lopez then christened their new settlement “St. Augustine.”
Trumpets and booming artillery fire had only hours earlier accompanied Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés as he came ashore. That Spanish Admiral commemorated the moment with a cross lifted heavenly by the fleet’s captain-priest. Then both men “claimed” and “took possession of” Florida for God and country.
Almost as an afterthought , Menéndez invited the Timucuans to join the newcomers in a communal meal.
A number of Florida historians claim that this feast — and not that held by the Pilgrims some fifty-years later with the Wampanoag in Plymouth, Massachusetts — was the true North American first Thanksgiving.
“It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land,” wrote the late University of Florida professor emeritus of history Michael Gannon in his book “The Cross in the Sand.”
The Spaniards and Timucuans had none of today’s typical Thanksgiving fare at that first “feast.” In fact, the Europeans, wary of these new and strange offerings of the “Savages” and “Indians” mostly ate stale and vermin-infested leftovers — that is, whatever had survived the long sea voyage. According to Robyn Gioia, author of the children’s book, “America’s REAL First Thanksgiving,” that first meal could also have included hard biscuits and cocido — a rich garbanzo stew made with pork, garlic, saffron, cabbage and onion — washed down with red wine.
On the other hand,
“The Timucua ate what was available to them locally and that could have included alligator, bear, wild turkey, venison, tortoise and food from the sea such as turtle, shark, mullet or sea catfish,” Gioia says. Her research also shows that unlike the European interlopers, the indigenous people ate like this most of time, including large amounts of oysters and clams, along with beans and squash.
Other historians agree that America’s first Thanksgiving occurred in Florida, but only forty miles further north and a full one year earlier than the one in St. Augustine. They point to French Huguenots — strict Calvinists like the Pilgrims — who feasted with the Timucuans to mark the June 1564 establishment of Fort Caroline on the St. John’s River, known today as Jacksonville, Florida.
“We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching him that it would please his Grace to continue his accustomed goodness toward us,” French explorer Rene Goulaine de Laudonnière wrote in his journal.
God apparently did not hear (or if he did, he certainly did not answer) that particular prayer. Less than two weeks after dropping anchor in the “New World,” Menéndez attacked Fort Caroline and killed 130 of those selfsame French Huguenots, whom the Spaniards considered as heretics and interlopers.
Not long after that first European-on-European (“white-on-white”) genocidal act in North America, Spanish colonists followed up with a massacre of their own, killing an additional 200 shipwrecked French survivors near St. Augustine. That “event” was eventually dubbed “Matanzas” — Spanish for “slaughters.”
These blood baths cleansed the historical record and memory of the “thanksgiving” ceremonies conducted by both the French and Spanish settlers in the 1560s right up until their recent re-discovery.
But Florida has not been not alone in claiming deep “Thanksgiving” roots, deeper than the now accepted New England colonists’ claims.
Indeed, an historical marker paid for by the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists near Canyon, Texas, says that Father Juan de Padilla held forth right there with a thanksgiving service in May 1541. He did so for a 1,500-man army led by Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.
And then there is Virginia and Maine. Both of these states claim to have hosted the nation’s first Thanksgiving before the arrival of the Mayflower.
James W. Baker’s “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday,” argues that these early European explorers, such as Juan Ponce de Leon (of “Fountain of Youth” fame) upon his 1513 arrival in Florida, offered the by then traditional formal thanks to God for a safe trans-Atlantic crossing.
But these “thanks” were disparate in space and time, and amounted to isolated events which did not conform to or enhance the “Thanksgiving” mythology that helped cement the future “American” nation-state’s legitimacy. Baker puts it thusly:
“While any of these can be said to be ‘Thanksgivings’ actually celebrated before 1620 and the Pilgrims, none were repeated or resulted in spawning a new tradition. As just isolated and ephemeral events, they do not bear any real historical significance beyond their position in time.
“None of these events were made anything of historically, or even rediscovered, until the 20th century, and thus did not contribute to our modern American holiday tradition.”
Baker concludes, then, that America’s Thursday Thanksgiving festivities are therefore rooted in New England’s Puritan Calvinist tradition essentially by default. The point is that there was never a single “first Thanksgiving” — neither in the 1621 three-day Plymouth wang-dang-doodle nor anywhere else.
Indeed, Baker notes that it was not until 1841 that anyone averred that the Pilgrims hosted the “first” Thanksgiving– more than two centuries after they had actually landed (invaded) these shores.
“While we can argue the case for Florida or Texas or any other claimant as a true ‘first’ occurrence of a holiday of that name, it is ultimately a moot point as all of them lack any historical agency in the evolution of the modern holiday.”
The above is a more “traditional” rendering of early “American” [read white American] history. I have taken it from the “traditional” historical record, sources and resources, which teach and explain American history as a glorious, daring and heart-warming, and above all, innocent and ongoing adventure.
Please note that the Native or Indigenous Peoples in this kind of narrative are presented as bit players only, or serve as a mere backdrop to the main event, which is, of course, only concerned with who, what, where, how and when the colonial invaders fared as they proceeded to “discover” and “conquer” and ultimately “domesticate” a heretofore “wild” and “virgin” land.
None of the sources I used here emphasize the obvious truth that it was the “Natives” who made “Thanksgiving” possible for the Europeans to first survive, subsist, and then thrive. The vast, vast majority of colonists would have perished without a trace (as many did) without the aid of the Natives. (See, The Lost Colony of Roanoke, as just one of the known “disappeared” European attempts at settlement. How many others suffered the same fate but whose plights have been lost in the mists of history?).
Yet, amazingly, once those white colonial survivors made it through those first terrible, harsh and merciless years, those selfsame colonists turned on their Indigenous friends and helpers, robbing them of their lands, enslaving them, and exterminating as many of them as they could.
The rest, as they say, is history — or is it the present?