Tradition holds that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, as English Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts shared a bountiful harvest with their Native American neighbors.
The first Thanksgiving celebration in North America actually took place in Florida.
Fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, colonists in St. Augustine shared a feast of thanksgiving with Native Americans.
“Not until 42 years later would English Jamestown be founded,” says eminent Florida historian Michael Gannon. “Not until 56 years later would the Pilgrims in Massachusetts observe their famous Thanksgiving. St. Augustine’s settlers celebrated the nation’s first Thanksgiving over a half century earlier, on September 8, 1565. Following a religious service, the Spaniards shared a communal meal with the local native tribe.”
Hosting the first Thanksgiving celebration in what would become the United States is one of many “firsts” for the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in America.
“When the Spaniards founded St. Augustine nearly 450 years ago, they proceeded to found our nation’s first city government, first school, first hospital, first city plan, first Parrish church, and first mission to the native populations,” Gannon says.
In 1965, Gannon was a priest and historian in St. Augustine, leading several projects to help celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city. He oversaw the erection of the Great Cross on the site of the first religious service and thanksgiving feast in North America. At 208 feet tall, the stainless steel structure is the largest freestanding cross in the Western Hemisphere.
“It was decided to build a cross, because that was central to the original ceremony, where Father Francisco López, the fleet chaplain, soon to be first pastor of the first Parrish, came ashore ahead of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the leader of the founding expedition, and then went forward to meet Menéndez holding a cross,” says Gannon. “Menéndez came on land, knelt and kissed the cross.”
Every year, the September 8, 1565 landing of Menéndez and the Catholic Mass that followed is reenacted in St. Augustine with dignitaries from around the world in attendance. For many years the role of Menéndez has been played by Chad Light.
Today, visitors to the first permanent European settlement in North America can see a statue of Father Francisco López in front of the Great Cross. The statue is placed on the approximate site where Father López held the first Catholic Mass in the city, which was attended by Native Americans. Following the service, the European settlers and the native people shared a Thanksgiving meal.
The statue of Father López is carved out of indigenous coquina stone, a sedimentary rock comprised of compressed shells. The rough surface of the coquina symbolizes the difficult journey the Spanish endured on their voyage to Florida.
“That statue was erected in the 1950s. It was executed by a distinguished Yugoslav sculptor, Ivan Meštrović,” says Gannon. “But it was placed in a copse of trees where it did not stand out against a dark background. The plan that the architects in 1965 came forward with was to move it to a site on open ground where the figure of Father López, with his arms in the air, would stand out against the sky. And now, at long last, the statue has been moved to that space. You can see the dramatic difference in the figure of Father López as he’s seen completely and clearly now against the sky, and directly in front of the Great Cross, which stands behind him.”
The Spanish had only just arrived in St. Augustine when their Thanksgiving dinner was served, and they did not have the benefit of having raised crops for a year as the English Pilgrims did more than half a century later.
The Spanish had to do the best they could with leftovers from their long voyage.
“The menu was a stew of salted pork and garbanzo beans, accompanied with ship’s bread and red wine,” says Gannon.
While Floridians should proudly proclaim ownership of the first Thanksgiving celebration held in what would become the United States, we may want to retain the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, vegetables, and cranberry sauce.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers,” broadcast locally on 90.7 WMFE Thursday evenings at 6:30 and Sunday afternoons at 4:00, and on 89.5 WFIT Sunday mornings at 7:00. The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.