Settling the First Thanksgiving Debate

Map of St Augustine by Baptista Boazio
Map by Baptista Boazio depicts Sir Francis Drake's attack on Saint Augustine.

Thanksgiving: Beginning the Hoilday Season

It’s that time of year when Americans come together for the joys of a prolonged holiday season beginning with Thanksgiving and culminating with New Year’s Day. Generally, Americans celebrate by spending time with family and gathering around a table overflowing with abundance. It’s at this moment when we are most thankful to God for all we have as a nation and in our families. Usually, we are occupied with travel plans and travel delays in the days leading up to the holiday feast known as Thanksgiving. Here’s something to think about during the wait.  Consider that many of us grew up learning about Pilgrims in school. Various learning methods were used upon us to drill the Thanksgiving story into our minds; from skits and plays to endless arts and crafts involving black hats and turkeys. Most of us never thought to question what was being taught and still don’t. But when and where was the first Thanksgiving?

When was the first Thanksgiving?

  • The very first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Israelites somewhere in the Middle East a long long time ago.
  • The first Thanksgiving in America was in St Augustine, Florida on September 8, 1565.
  • The first Thanksgiving celebrated by America as a complete nation of 50 states was November 1959.

For many years there has been a discussion of sorts among our citizenry of when and where the very first Thanksgiving occured in America. To settle that question we need to isolate what we mean by asking when and where.  Is the question really when was the first Thanksgiving celebrated by America? What is meant by “America?” Do you mean the pre-revolution colonies or do you mean after our independence from the British? The answer would appear to be when President Abraham Lincoln issued the first “Thanksgiving Procamation” in 1863. But I must add that the South – the Confederate States of America which were technically not a part of the USA at that time and wouldn’t be again until 1865 at the end of the war. Do we mean Post-Civil War America or America that includes all 50 states? We celebrated our first Thanksgiving as a whole – all 50 states – in 1959 after Hawaii became our 50th state in August of that year.

Founding of St. Augustine

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his 800 Spanish settlers founded the settlement of
St. Augustine in La Florida on September 8, 1565. The landing party celebrated a Mass of
Thanksgiving followed by a meal to which Menendez invited as guests the native Seloy tribe who occupied the site.The celebrant of the Mass was St. Augustine’s first pastor, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales. The feast day in the church calendar was that of the Nativity of the Blessed  Virgin Mary. Father Lopez wrote in his personal journal that “the Indians imitated all they saw done.”

The REAL First Thanksgiving according to Dr. Michael V. Gannon

What is important historically about that liturgy and meal was stated by me in a 1965 book entitled The Cross in the Sand: “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent [European] settlement in the land.” The keyword in that sentence was “permanent.” Numerous thanksgivings for a safe voyage and landing had been made before in Florida, by such explorers as Juan Ponce de León, in 1513 and 1521, Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528, Hernando de Soto in 1529, Father Luis Cáncer de Barbastro in 1549, and Tristán de Luna in 1559. Indeed French Calvinists (Huguenots) who came to the St. Johns River with Jean Ribault in 1562 and René de Laudonnière in 1564 similarly offered prayers of thanksgiving for their safe arrivals. But all of those ventures, Catholic and Calvinist, failed to put down permanent roots.

St. Augustine’s ceremonies were important historically in that they took place in what would develop into a permanently occupied European city, North America’s first. They were important culturally as well in that the religious observance was accompanied by a communal meal, to which Spaniards and natives alike were invited. The thanksgiving at St. Augustine, celebrated 56 years before the Puritan-Pilgrim thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation (Massachusetts), did not, however, become the origin of a national annual tradition, as Plymouth would. The reason is that, as the maxim holds, it is the victors who write the histories.

During the 18th and 19th centuries British forces won out over those of Spain and France for mastery over the continent. Thus, British observances, such as the annual reenactment of the Pilgrims’ harvest festival in 1621, became a national practice and holiday in the new United States, and over time obliterated knowledge of the prior Spanish experiences in Florida, particularly at St. Augustine. Indeed, as the Pilgrims’ legend grew, people of Anglo-American descent in New England came to believe that Plymouth was the first European settlement in the country and that no other Europeans were here before the arrival of the Mayflower– beliefs that are still widespread in that region.

In recent years, Jamestown, Virginia has enjoyed some success in persuading its Anglo-American cousins in Plymouth that it was founded in 1607, thirteen years before the Pilgrims’ arrival, and that there were regular ship schedules from England to Jamestown before the Mayflower’s voyage of 1620. Furthermore, Berkeley Plantation near Charles City, Virginia, has convincingly demonstrated that it conducted a thanksgiving ceremony on December 4, 1619, nearly two years before the festival at Plymouth. Thought to have been on Berkeley’s menu were oysters, shad, rockfish, and perch. Along the old Spanish borderlands provinces from Florida to California an occasional voice is heard asserting that this site or that was the first permanent Spanish settlement in the United States – a claim often made in Santa Fe, New Mexico which was founded in 1610 – or that it was the place where the first thanksgiving took place. An example of the latter claim appeared last year in the New York Times, which, while recounting the colonizing expedition of Juan de Oñate from Mexico City into what became New Mexico, stated that celebrations of Oñate’s party in 1598 “are considered [the Times did not say by whom] the United States’ first Thanksgiving.”

The historical fact remains that St. Augustine’s thanksgiving not only came earlier; it was the first to take place in a permanent settlement. The Ancient City deserves national notice for that distinction.

New Englander’s Controversy

Perhaps most of New England is now willing to concede as much, though that was not the case in November 1985, when an Associated Press reporter built a short Thanksgiving Day story around my aforesaid sentence of 20 years before in The Cross in the Sand. When his story appeared in Boston and other papers, New England went into shock. WBZ-TV in Boston interviewed me live by satellite for its 6:00 p.m. regional news

The newsman told me that all of Massachusetts was “freaked out,” and that, as he spoke, “the Selectmen of Plymouth are holding an emergency meeting to contend with this new information that there were Spaniards in Florida before there were Englishmen in Massachusetts.”

I replied, “Fine. And you can tell them for me that, by the time the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.”

The somewhat rattled chairman of the Selectmen was quoted as saying: “I hate to take the wind out of the professor’s sails, but there were no turkeys running around in Florida in the 1500s. But there may be a few loose ones down there now at the University of Florida.” So there! Within a few days of the tempest a reporter from the Boston Globe called to tell me that throughout Massachusetts I had become known as “The Grinch Who Stole Thanksgiving.” Well, let’s hope that everyone up north has settled down now. And let’s enjoy all our Thanksgivings whenever and wherever they first began.

Dr. Gannon is a Distinguished Service Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has had a long interest in the early Spanish missions of Florida about which he has written extensively. Two of his books, Rebel Bishop (1964) and The Cross in the Sand (1965) treat of the early history of this state.

Thanks to Realtor Francesca Vavala aka @francesca_homes for contributing immensely to this post!

Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the great Governor and Explorer, founded St. Augustine, Florida, the first successful colonial settlement in America, in 1565. Established forty-two years before the founding of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, and 55 years prior to the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth, St. Augustine is historically noted as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement. –

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