As curious members of the Timucua tribe watched on, on September 8, 1565, the 800 newly-arrived Spanish colonists convened around a makeshift altar while Father Lopez conducted a Catholic mass of thanksgiving for their safe arrival in the newly named settlement of St. Augustine, Florida. Following Menéndez’ invitation, the Timucuans sat down with the newcomers in a communal meal.
Several historians from Florida have argued that this feast – and not the feast held 56 years later by the Wampanoags and Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachussets – was really North America’s first thanksgiving. In his book “The Cross in the Sand,” Michael Gannon wrote that it was the first community act of thanksgiving and religion in the first permanent settlement of the land.
The menu shared and enjoyed by the Timucuans and Spaniards did not have a lot of today’s typical Thanksgiving dishes, it did however feature the traditional post-Thanksgiving staple – leftovers.
Different to the Pilgrims who served meals freshly harvested from the soil, the Spanish had to make do with what provisions remained after the long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
According to the author of the children’s book “America’s REAL first Thanksgiving,” Robyn Gioia, the Spanish colonists probably ate hard biscuits and a garbanzo stew made with onion, cabbage, saffron, garlic and pork – and drank red wine.
Gioia states that the Timucua ate what was locally available to them, including mullet or sea catfish, shark, turtle, tortoise, wild turkey, venison, bear and alligator. Archaeological evidence also illustrates that indigenous people ate huge amounts of clams and oysters, as well as beans and squash.
Other historians argue that although America’s first Thanksgiving did take place in Florida, it actually happened 40 miles north and a year earlier than the one in St. Augustine when French Huguenots had a service of thanksgiving and ate with the Timucuans to mark Fort Caroline’s establishment in June 1564.
Unfortunately, less than two weeks after arriving in the New World, Menéndez led a battle on Fort Caroline that killed
French Huguenots whom the Spaniards viewed as interlopers and heretics. Weeks later, an additional 200 French shipwreck survivors were massacred at an inlet near St. Augustine that was later known as “Matanzas” – the Spanish word for “slaughters.”
The bloodshed assisted in washing away historical memory of thanksgiving ceremonies celebrated by Spanish and French settlers in the 1560s until their rediscovery in recent decades.
Although any of these can be called Thanksgiving, none of them resulted in creating a new tradition. Seeing as they were simply isolated events, they do not bear any real historical significance after their position in time.