Our annual celebration of Thanksgiving conjures up visions of the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims enjoying a harvest feast with Native Americans, a historic event that has been celebrated in song and art for centuries. But before carving up the turkey this Thursday, you should learn about a lesser-known thanksgiving meal, also with Europeans and Indians, that took place more than 50 years before the famous Pilgrim landing.
On September 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez came ashore the Florida coast and named the area after St. Augustine because land was sighted on the saint’s feast, August 28. The native Timucua tribe peacefully greeted Menendez and 800 or so Catholic colonists.
That very day, in thanksgiving for a safe journey, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales offered the first Mass ever celebrated on what is now U.S. soil. Afterward, according to the priest’s memoirs, colonist and natives shared a celebratory meal. In his 1965 book The Cross in the Sand, historian Michael Gannon called the day’s festivities “the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.” To this day, the city of St. Augustine is recognized as the first permanent U.S. settlement.
The Pilgrims’ thanksgiving at Plymouth – which may have included wild turkey and other fowl along with venison and an array of harvest vegetables including pumpkin – more closely resembled our traditional Thanksgiving meal than the Spaniard meal at St. Augustine. There the main fare probably consisted of cocido, a garlic-flavored stew of salted pork and garbanzo beans. The Timucua may have brought fish, fowl, grains and squash to share. Certainly there were many more mouths to feed in St. Augustine than there were at Plymouth, where only 53 of the original 102 colonists from the Mayflower survived the first harsh winter and attended the feast.
So the first U.S. thanksgiving belongs to the Spaniards, although any of several other Spanish explorers dating as far back as Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 also offered prayers of thanksgiving and enjoyed some hospitality with the natives upon their own arrival to America’s shores. In addition, there was also French explorer Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, who made landfall near Jacksonville, Florida, established Fort Caroline, sang songs of praise and thanksgiving, and dined with the Timucua Indians on June 30, 1564, more than 14 months ahead of Menendez. Regardless of who prayed or dined with the Indians first, the Pilgrims’ harvest meal at Plymouth remains the icon for our Thanksgiving celebration today.
As Catholics, however, let’s remember one thing: the word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” Thus, in the most profound and sacred sense, the Mass celebrated by Father Lopez on the land named St. Augustine in 1565 constitutes the real first Thanksgiving in what would one day become the United States of America.
About the Author
Gerald Korson, a veteran Catholic journalist, is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Indiana.
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