Guest: Thanksgiving began in St. Augustine

400-Pedro-Menendez-CHAD-LIGGuest: Thanksgiving began in St. Augustine

By: Raphael Cosme

For more than 300 years Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving Day based on historical accounts of 1621 at Plymouth Rock Plantation, where the Pilgrims who boarded the Mayflower came to the New World to escape religious persecution in England. The settlers had no idea how to survive in such new territory.

Historians have conflicting accounts in which year, between 1621 and 1623, the winter harvest took place and how many people took part after surviving those terrible early days — lacking food and enduring cold weather. Most historians agree the Wampanoag Indians joined the settlers and celebrated, with native recipes, the First Thanksgiving. For many years the winter harvest celebration of Thanksgiving was continued by other settlers in the New World.

In 1863 Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a traditional and a National Holiday. In Florida this tradition was followed like any other state — but some researchers, and locals from St. Augustine, have found a way to include the explorer Pedro Menendez’ First Landing Mass and Thanksgiving as part of their traditions.

According to Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales and Gonzalo Solis de Meras, chroniclers of Menendez’ voyage, the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the permanent settlement in the land of St. Augustine, Florida occurred on September 8, 1565.

Researcher Dr. Kathleen Deagan Talks about the Subject:

The historic Governor’s House in St. Augustine, now a historical museum, served the spot for a one-on-one interview with Dr. Kathleen Deagan from the University of Florida, who has researched early Spanish settlements for more than half century.

Dr. Deagan talked about how Thanksgiving began in St. Augustine and how archaeology helped to uncover the truth of the first meal prepared by the settlers.

“We know about the first Thanksgiving in St. Augustine, because of documents actually, not archaeology,” Deagan began. “The historians who worked with us on early colonial Florida in St. Augustine are studying manuscripts that came from Spain and that were left by people who were actually here with Menendez.”

There are good descriptions of that landing and the first Thanksgiving. They were happy and relieved to finally be in Florida after a terrible journey from Spain. They arrived and Menendez commanded them to have a great feast of Thanksgiving after the first Mass. He called for food and musicians and to feed the Indians who were very curious of his undertaking of what was going on there. They celebrated having a safe arrival to Florida.

The manuscripts don’t specifically tell the date of the landing and Thanksgiving — but certainly there was a Mass on the day of the landing and a celebration. The first Thanksgiving was, as we think of it, on September 8 of 1565.

400-Founders-ThanksgivingTo this day we don’t know the spot where they held the Thanksgiving but we have uncovered some of the food remains of the Thanksgiving from the settler’s lives.

If you combine what they wrote about food and what came in the ships and what we found archaeologically, we can reconstruct what probably was there. That included beans, garbanzos, dried fish, meat, dried ham, pork, salt biscuits, olives, and we have found many containers with wine and olive oil in them, so it was a Spanish kind of meal.

The pork would’ve been salted pork at that time. We haven’t found any actual pork bones, because it was brought here at the beginning in casks of meat that was salted.

We don’t have any evidence of wheat bread. It was probably what they called “sea biscuit” – a dried sort of hard biscuit that endured – but we also know that they brought in yucca, cassava as a supply here, not in the first Thanksgiving but after that.

We have also found grinding stones that showed that they were eating corn, and also have found a lot of burnt corn kernels. But they ran out of food quickly, and most of the food that were supplies for the colony never got there, it was sunk on ships, and the colonists had very little to eat. The yucca was brought from the Caribbean, probably from Cuba and Hispaniola. It was a traditional Taino Indian food which the Spaniards adopted in the Caribbean.

“I don’t think anyone could ever pinpoint the exact spot at which the ships landed. My guess is that there were many landing spots around that area,” Deagan believes. “Because big ships could not anchor in the area near the Fountain of Youth or the Mission Nombre de Dios, they had to anchor outside the waters and come in many small boats.”

The range of the landing between the Fountain of Youth to the ships was possibly a quarter of a mile. The boats arrived somewhere along the shores of Hospital Creek.

Charles A. Tingley, Author:

“If one thinks of the American Thanksgiving as to be a harvest festival where the community gathers and invites the neighbors, like the pilgrims feast with the local natives, then St. Augustine does not have the First Thanksgiving,” Tingley says. “But, if you think of Thanksgiving as a religious ceremony associated with a feast, then we do have the First Thanksgiving.”

Perhaps September 8th should be officially designated a Thanksgiving day — not only in our treasured town, but throughout the entire state of Florida, particularly in light of the forthcoming 450th Commemoration Celebration of the founding of St. Augustine, the Nation’s Oldest City.