November 22, 2023 at 3:26 p.m.

First Thanksgiving In Florida, Not Massachusetts

Celebrated in St. Augustine in 1565
The first known Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565. Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez is depicted here, seated in the center.
The first known Thanksgiving was celebrated in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565. Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez is depicted here, seated in the center.
(Contributed Photo)

THOMAS LARK | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment
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We all know the story of the Pilgrims and the supposed first Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Mass., in 1621.

Those dour, anti-fun killjoys in the funny hats were seeking the freedom to enjoy a more repressive form of ersatz Christianity than was possible in England at the time, to paraphrase writer, humorist and radio host Garrison Keillor. And they were also the same charming folks who gave us the Salem witchcraft trials some 70 years later.

But their big claim to fame of hosting the first Thanksgiving is in truth mostly a myth, bandied about and miseducating countless American schoolkids for some 100 years now. According to the late historian, Michael Gannon (1927-2017), the first Thanksgiving actually occurred in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565.

Many other historians place the first Thanksgiving long years earlier. Similar events are known to have taken place in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean as far back as the 1490’s, under the leadership of Columbus and other such explorers from Spain.

Explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

In the late summer of 1565, some 800 Spaniards, led by admiral and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, founded America’s oldest city as San Agustín. Menéndez would go on to become Florida’s first governor. Under his aegis, Spanish explorers penetrated as far north as modern-day eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.

As for that first Thanksgiving, according to the National Park Service, it occurred in September, not November, right after the Spanish landed. A Mass of thanksgiving, co-inciding with the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Sept. 8), was celebrated by Fr. Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales. Members of the Seloy tribe, the local indigenous Amerindians, were invited. Chronicling the event, Fr López wrote, “the Indians imitated all they saw done.”

What did they eat? Based upon the stores the Spaniards had aboard their five ships, it may be guessed that salted pork, garbanzo beans, hardtack and red wine were included in the fare. And if the Seloy people brought food of their own, that could have included the now-popular turkey, of course, as well as venison, several kinds of fish, beans and squash.

Gannon, an authority on early Spanish settlements in Florida, tells us the feast was held not a thousand feet from the Castillo de San Marcos: what is now la Misión de Nombre de Dios or, translated from the Spanish, “the Mission of the Name of God.” Today, a cross, some 250 feet tall, commemorates the event and the site of the Spaniards’ original landing.



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