America’s First Thanksgiving Was in Florida — Seriously. It Was!

COMMENTARY: More than 50 years before the Puritans landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Spanish Catholics gave thanks to God with a Mass and meal in St. Augustine.

Historic ivy covered church located in St. Augustine, Florida.
Historic ivy covered church located in St. Augustine, Florida. (photo: Kevin Winkler Photography / Shutterstock)

St. Augustine, Florida, is a small city with a lot of “firsts” to its credit. It was the first permanent European settlement in what is now the United States. It was the site of the first Mass in the U.S. It is the place where the first shrine to Our Lady was erected (it stands on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios). It was from here that the first Catholic mission to American Indians was launched. And, now, here comes the surprise — St. Augustine was the site of the first Thanksgiving celebration in America. As you’d expect, that detail might not go over well in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Here’s what happened.

In 1565, a fleet of Spanish ships bearing 800 colonists and 700 soldiers sighted land. Since it was Aug. 28, the feast of St. Augustine, the colony was named in honor of one of our greatest doctors of the Church. The entire colony — all the settlers, all the troops — went ashore on Sept. 8. As he set foot on land, the admiral of the fleet, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, kissed a crucifix and then claimed the land for the king of Spain.

The colonists erected a makeshift outdoor altar, decorated and furnished it, and then gathered around as the colony’s chaplain, Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, celebrated Mass — the first in Florida and the first in what is now the United States. Members of the Timucuan tribe were drawn to the beach by the arrival of the strangers and then stayed to watch the Mass. Afterward, the Spanish invited the Timucuans to join them in a feast to thank Almighty God for their safe arrival. And so Europeans and Native Americans shared a meal together, in a spirit of gratitude for their blessings — and they did so 56 years before the pilgrims and Wampanoags’ Thanksgiving in what is now Massachusetts.


The Menu

The Plymouth Thanksgiving was a harvest festival, but the Spanish had just gotten off the boat. We don’t know what was on the menu that day in 1565, but the Spanish would have drawn upon their own supplies from the ships.

Author Robyn Gioia believes the Spanish would have served a stew called cocido, made with pork, garbanzo beans, garlic, cabbage and onion and seasoned with saffron — a true sign of hospitality, since saffron was and still is one of the most expensive spices in the world. Hard biscuits were probably served, too, as these were a staple on long voyages (fresh bread gets moldy fast, but hard biscuits have a long shelf life).

As for the Timucuans, they enjoyed an enormous selection of wild game and seafood, as well beans and squash, which they could have brought to the table. We know from archaeological sites that the Timucuans were especially fond of oysters, so perhaps they contributed them to the feast. And since wild turkey is native to Florida, it’s possible that turkey was one of the dishes at the Spanish-Timucuan Thanksgiving. And of course, the Spanish would have served wine.


The Massacres

Sadly, this era of good feelings came to an end quickly. Two weeks after their arrival, Menendez led his troops against a French settlement to the north. Through his spies in French seaports, King Philip II of Spain had learned that the French were encroaching on his territory. Worse still, the settlers were Huguenots, French Calvinists.

Philip authorized Menendez to exterminate the unauthorized colony. Menendez’s expedition killed 130 men, sparing only the women and children. A few weeks later, Timucuans reported that a couple hundred shipwrecked Frenchmen had washed up on a nearby beach and were walking north. Once again, Menendez led out his forces and massacred these Frenchmen, too.

About a century later, the inhabitants of St. Augustine found themselves on the receiving end of national and sectarian violence. An English pirate captured the town, ransacked churches and private homes, killed about 60 people and carried off captives, some of whom he ransomed. He sold the rest as slaves. Colonial America could be a very bloody place.

To be honest, the St. Augustine Thanksgiving never put down roots in the South as the Plymouth Thanksgiving would in New England. It’s not that Spanish Catholics were ungrateful to God for the blessings he showered upon them; the festive meal just never became an annual event.

The English Calvinists who settled New England (the pilgrims were Calvinists) had a tradition of “Days of Thanksgiving,” which had been established in Old England and which they carried with them to the New World. The Calvinists rejected the Catholic liturgical calendar, even to the point of outlawing Christmas. These Thanksgiving days were considered suitable for a reformed religion that had swept away holy days of obligation and the feasts of Our Lady and the saints.

Over the next 240 years after the 1621 celebration in Plymouth, these Thanksgiving harvest festivals were popular in New England, although each state celebrated on a different day.

The idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday found its champion in Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), the author of the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb. For 17 years, she lobbied presidents to extend this New England tradition to the nation. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln accepted Hale’s petition. During the dark days of the Civil War, with American pitted against American, Lincoln hoped that a Thanksgiving holiday would at least be a step toward the reunification of the American people.

Lincoln set the date for the last Thursday in November. In 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the date to the fourth Thursday in November, arguing that Thanksgiving would be the kickoff for the Christmas shopping season and thus boost the economy.

The tradition of the president of the United States granting a turkey a reprieve is said to date back to 1863. Noah Brooks, a White House reporter during the Lincoln presidency and a close friend of Lincoln, tells the story of the desolation of young Tad Lincoln when he learned that the turkey he had taken as his pet was destined for the Lincolns’ Thanksgiving dinner. To comfort his little boy, Lincoln granted the turkey a reprieve.

Off and on over the decades, presidents have pardoned turkeys. John F. Kennedy seems to have established the tradition when, in 1963, he looked at a live turkey and said, “Let’s keep him going.” The presidential pardoning ceremony has become an established Thanksgiving White House event.

History is complicated, and interesting stories are often forgotten. So this Thanksgiving week, it is a pleasure to remind our readers of the real first Thanksgiving that Spanish colonists and Timucuan Indian celebrated together in St. Augustine, Florida.

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee:

How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.