St. Augustine: Site Of The Real First Thanksgiving
By Steven Joseph and Robin Jay
George Washington proclaimed the first nationally celebrated Thanksgiving holiday in December of 1777 to commemorate victory over the British. And many historians, as well as Americans, subscribe to the notion that the “first” Thanksgiving was a dinner held between Separatist Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and the local Patuxet Native Americans. However, historical evidence shows the “first” Thanksgiving actually took place more than half a decade prior, and almost 2,000 miles away.
Some 60 years before the first settlers at Plymouth Rock, English settlers established Jamestown, Virginia in 1601. And yet, even those settlers were late to the proverbial table. You see, on September 8, 1565, Spanish “pilgrims” (notice the lower-case “p;” while these were not your black-hat-with-a-buckle-wearing Pilgrims, they were certainly settlers on a pilgrimage to a new land) landed in St. Augustine. Dr. Michael Gannon is the historian who documented the real first Thanksgiving in his 1965 book, The Cross In The Sand, which was about the history of the Catholic Church in St. Augustine.
South Florida Opulence sat down with Dr. Gannon – a fascinating scholar who is a former military historian, war correspondent, priest, and retired University of Florida professor with a doctorate in history. Known for his study of Spanish colonial history, he is a Knight Commander of the Order of Isabel the Catholic, granted by King Juan Carlos I of Spain.
“When The Cross In The Sand was first published almost 50 years ago – it was a huge success (it’s still in print today) – but at the time, no one paid attention to the documentation it contained about the real first Thanksgiving in St. Augustine,” Dr. Gannon said. “It wasn’t until 1985, when I received a phone call from an AP reporter in Jacksonville who was looking for a new angle to take on Thanksgiving. He asked if I had any suggestions, so I told him about the story of St. Augustine. The AP sent out the story on their national wire and it appeared in what seemed like every newspaper in the country.”
The Historical Perspective
The practical approach to defining ‘Thanksgiving’ holds that bread should be broken between foreign settlers and the native inhabitants. For the Separatist Pilgrims in Plymouth, this means the maize and wild turkeys eaten with Squanto and the Patuxet Indians in Massachusetts. But the Spanish settlers in St. Augustine shared a meal with Native Americans in 1565.
“When the first Spanish settlers landed in what is now St. Augustine on September 8, 1565, to build a settlement, their first act was to hold a religious service to thank God for the safe arrival of the Spanish fleet,” said Dr. Gannon. “After the mass, Father Francisco Lopez, the Chaplin of the Spanish ships and the first pastor of St. Augustine, stipulated that the natives from the Timucua tribe be fed along with the Spanish settlers, including Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the leader of the expedition. It was the very first Thanksgiving and the first Thanksgiving meal in the United States.”
An Unusual Menu
Dr. Gannon continued, “The difference compared to the New England Thanksgiving years later was that the natives up there brought the food for the Puritans to eat. However, at the St. Augustine Thanksgiving in 1565, the meal was entirely Spanish food from the ships (only 5 of the 19 ships made it here…some of the others that sank or had to turn back because of hurricanes may have had better provisions on board). It was a strange meal of salted pork, garbanzo beans, ship’s bread and red wine. We know this from the analysis of the ship’s accounts that are on record.”
So this coming holiday season, whether you serve oven-roasted turkey in November, or cocido in September (it’s a bean soup/stew, and the recommended variety for authenticity is garbanzo, in case you were wondering), be sure that the common thread is that you’re giving thanks. After all, regardless of its origins, that is the true meaning of the holiday. For now, just be grateful for your continued education.