First Thanksgivings

A depiction of the 1565 Augustine, Florida Thanksgiving.

Americans know the story.  The Mayflower Pilgrims – thankful to survive, first, a brutal voyage across the Atlantic and, second, a nasty winter sat down with a group of locals (a.k.a. Indians) and had a bountiful feast of food.  Like many American legends, it’s a mixture of truth and hyperbole.  But, as time progresses and historians research more, Americans are starting to realize they actually may have experienced more than just one “First Thanksgiving.”

Along with Thanksgiving, descendants of the Mayflower like to claim they established the first permanent European settlement in what is now the United States.  They’re wrong on both counts.  Long before the Mayflower even set sail, Spanish explorers had spread throughout much of present-day Latin America and what is now the southwestern U.S.  In 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived in northeastern Florida.  He named the stretch of land near the inlet in honor of Augustine, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church; it was on Augustine’s feast day – August 28 – that Menendez de Aviles and his crew had sighted land.  Menendez de Aviles and his contingent of some 1,500 mostly military personnel encountered the Timucuan Indians who had occupied the region for millennia.  The Spaniards had brought pork, olive oil and wine, but the Timucuans helped them gather oysters and giant clams.  At some point immediately afterwards, the two groups feasted together.  The city eventually became St. Augustine, and today its residents declare they are home to the nation’s first Thanksgiving celebration.

At Texas’ westernmost point sits the city of El Paso, where humans first settled around 10,000 B.C.  In March of 1598, another Spanish explorer named Don Juan de Oñate led an expedition across the Chihuahua Desert, hoping to colonize regions north of the massive Rio Grande.  After a 50-day trek, Oñate and his entourage of roughly 500 people, including several children, arrived in the area of contemporary El Paso.  Most were barely alive.  They’d exhausted their supplies of food and water; a rain shower saving them at one point.  Once they reach the El Paso area, though, conditions and circumstances improved.  The indigenous Tigua Indians helped the Oñate group capture wild game and fish.  After several days of recuperation, Oñate ordered a feast to venerate the expedition’s survival.  On April 30, 1598, the Spaniards and the Tiguas celebrated together.

A member of the expedition wrote: “We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before. . . We were happy that our trials were over; as happy as were the passengers in the Ark when they saw the dove returning with the olive branch in his beak, bringing tidings that the deluge had subsided.”

In April of 1989, the city of El Paso began honoring the Oñate celebration, laying claim to that coveted “First Thanksgiving” mantle.  But, Florida and Texas aren’t alone.

The state of Maine also stakes a claim to the “First Thanksgiving” on the basis of a service held by colonists on August 9, 1607, to give thanks for a safe voyage led by George Popham.

Connecticut may be the first state to set aside an official annual day of general thanksgiving.  Some records claim the first proclamation came on September 18, 1639.

In 1630, the Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a special day of prayer that is now often called the “First Thanksgiving.”  Even earlier in Florida, a small colony of French Huguenots living near present-day Jacksonville noted a special thanksgiving prayer.

Virginians are convinced their ancestors celebrated the first Thanksgiving when Jamestown settlers in 1610 held a religious service and a feast honoring their survival of a harsh winter.

President Abraham Lincoln may have declared the first official Thanksgiving holiday in 1863.  But, along with Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts and Virginia, the states of New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont all had annual thanksgiving observances before the 19th century.  New York joined them in 1817, and soon afterwards Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin followed.

Centuries ago, our ancestors didn’t think much about the far future – not to the same degree we do now.  They were glad to survive one day at a time.  Feasts of thanksgiving – surviving a harsh winter, a summer, or a monsoon – were always reasons to celebrate.  Our predecessors understood how dependent they were upon the world’s natural elements; they never felt they could control the wind and the rain.  They were at nature’s mercy.  And, everyone should be thankful for that.


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