Pilgrims, schmilgrims

"The First Thanksgiving, 1621," by J.L.G. Ferris. Library of Congress

“The First Thanksgiving, 1621,” by J.L.G. Ferris. Library of Congress

I fret about this every year: As our commercial culture jumps from Halloween to Christmas, where is Thanksgiving? My favorite holiday seems in danger of disappearing.

I’m talking about American folklore—pilgrims, Squanto, corn pudding, pie, family and friends, gratitude for survival and for the harvest.

But, according to the dean of Florida historians, Michael Gannon, the first North American Thanksgiving actually took place in Florida, and that’s even more forgotten.

Pilgrims, schmilgrims. Our shores were home to a thanksgiving celebration in 1565, decades before the doings at Plymouth Colony in 1621.

The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving

Prof. Michael Gannon. Courtesy Tampa Bay Times

Prof. Michael Gannon. Courtesy Tampa Bay Times

Gannon, now distinguished service professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida, wrote about Florida’s first thanksgiving in 1965, in his book “The Cross in the Sand.” He described the 1565 feast as “the first community act of religion and Thanksgiving in the first permanent European settlement in the land.”

Twenty years later, the good professor would be jokingly dubbed “the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

A reporter called Gannon in search of a fresh angle for a holiday article, and the professor told him about Thanksgiving, Florida-style—how on Sept. 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles had joined in the celebration of a thanksgiving Mass in the St. Augustine area, followed by a meal at which the explorer’s men supped with local Indians.

On the menu: Garbanzos and seafood

Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Library of Congress

Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Library of Congress

The Spaniards probably served their shipboard staples: salt pork, garbanzo beans, ship’s bread (or hardtack) and red wine. The natives would have supplied the good eating: seafood from our coastal waters, Gannon said.

After the interview and an Associated Press story, Gannon found himself besieged by talk-show hosts. Reaction was strongest in Massachusetts.

“You’ve caused a firestorm up here,” one interviewer told him, reporting that Plymouth’s town leaders were meeting about the Florida insurgency.

Now, things have calmed down. When reporters asked a few years ago about other claims to the first Thanksgiving (Texans and Virginians have theirs, too), officials at Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., adopted a conciliatory tone. When it comes to original feasts of “American” thanksgiving, they also noted, the best claims belong to Native Americans.

Giving thanks at St. Augustine, 1565

Giving thanks at St. Augustine, 1565

By the way, Michael Gannon’s book “Florida: A Short History” is an indispensable introduction to the state’s past, as is his “History of Florida in 40 Minutes” (University Press of Florida, 2007). For a great article about Gannon, see Jeff Klinkenberg’s profile at TampaBay.com, http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/the-remarkable-michael-gannon-his-history-is-floridas-history/1098373

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2 thoughts on “Pilgrims, schmilgrims

  1. Joy,

    Great column. In light of it being the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Florida, a fact that has been woefully underplayed by the state and the media, I would like to offer another Grinchy fact about Florida’s history, similar to the first Thanksgiving tale in that it puts doubt to another American legend. The story of Pocahontas actually has its beginnings in Florida, with the historically documented tale of the chief’s daughter who begged her father to have mercy on Juan Ortiz, a Spanish explorer who had the misfortune of almost being the first barbecued Spaniard on New World soil. The chief of the native tribe who lived around Tampa Bay granted his life, and he ended up living with the native people for more than a decade, before de Soto landed. Ortiz served as translator for de Soto’s journey. The story was recorded in the early Spanish journals, and made its way to England, and was conflated with the tale of Pocahontas.

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