Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who led the expedition to St. Augustine in 1565.
True or False: The Pilgrims celebrated America’s first Thanksgiving, a harvest festival in Plymouth, Massac- husetts, in 1621.
You may have answered “True,” based on what you learned in elementary school. But, according to current historical research, the answer is “False.” The REAL first thanksgiving celebration actually took place 56 years earlier, in St. Augustine, Florida (50 miles south of present-day Jacksonville).
On Sept. 8, 1565, Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed in St. Augustine with 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, and 100 civilian farmers and craftsmen, some with wives and children. After claiming La Florida on behalf of his monarch Philip II, Menendez and his entourage celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving for the expedition’s safe arrival and then shared a meal with the native Indians.
These stand as the first documented Thanksgiving events in a permanent settlement anywhere in North America north of Mexico, says Michael Gannon, an eminent Florida historian who holds the title of Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida.
Gannon’s research indicates that the real first Thanksgiving meal probably consisted of “cocido,” a stew of garbanzo beans, salted pork, and garlic, accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. If the native Indians contributed food to the meal, they might have brought protein sources such as deer, gopher tortoise, shark, drum, mullet, and sea catfish, and vegetables such as maize (corn), beans, squash, nuts, fruits, and miscellaneous greens.
Gannon’s findings are based on documents from the Menendez expedition and on the research of archaeologists who have studied St. Augustine and Indian artifacts.
But despite such irrefutable evidence, Gannon says changing the American lore about this traditional holiday hasn’t been easy.
“It is very difficult to get the powered-wig states to the north of Florida to recognize St. Augustine’s priority among American cities,” he says. “Even historians and journalists, particularly those of an Anglo-American bent, seem reluctant to accord any special stature to that dark-haired community, which was set in place one year following the death of Michelangelo and the birth of William Shakespeare.”
But in recent years, Gannon has made some progress in setting the record straight. In November 2004, he wrote a letter responding to an op-ed piece by writer/historian Charles C. Mann in the New York Times.
Mann, a Massachusetts-based author of many books and magazine articles, had written: “Until the arrival of the Mayflower, continental drift had kept apart North America and Europe for hundreds of millions of years. Plymouth Colony (and its less successful predecessor in Jamestown) reunited the continents.”
In his letter to the Times, Gannon stated: “By the dates Jamestown and Plymouth were founded, St. Augustine, Florida, was up for urban renewal. It was a city with a fort, church, market, college seminary, six-bed hospital, and 120 shops and homes.”
Mann later conceded this point by writing in the February 2006 Smithsonian magazine: “In September 1565 Pedro Menendez de Aviles led about 800 Spaniards to colonize St. Augustine. The landing party celebrated their arrival, inviting the local Indians – an act of religious Thanksgiving in a permanent settlement that included both natives and newcomers. Sounds like Thanksgiving to me!”
Gannon, pleased by this concession, continues his efforts to get the real Thanksgiving story out, even as Americans begin this season’s preparations for a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, vegetables, breads and, of course, pumpkin pie.
“Happy Thanksgiving meals to all!” he says. “And don’t forget the garbanzo beans.”
The Florida Humanities Council, a nonprofit organization, sponsors public programs exploring Florida’s history and cultural heritage.