"A truly American holiday," we think. With visions of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts coming together in 1621 to celebrate one year of survival in the New World, their Wampanoag Indian neighbors gathering with them, with a three-day feast and festival, we consider that event to be the first American Thanksgiving.
But was it? More investigation into history will show us that the Plymouth Colony celebration was not the first Thanksgiving, even in America.
The celebration predates 1621 by thousands of years in other parts of the world. Many cultures had days of thanksgiving at harvest time, to celebrate victories in battles, to recognize the hand of God in the affairs of men. We have but to read ancient psalms to see that giving thanks lay at the heart of worship and recognition of Diety. But in America, was there a time before 1621 and the Plymouth Colony gathering that could be termed America's "First Thanksgiving"?
Florida explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in America in 1513. He claimed the land he had found for Spain. He led his entourage to solemnly give thanks for safe passage and for the land they would explore for the King of Spain. He was followed by other conquistadores who did likewise in succeeding years. Some of these days of Thanksgiving were led by Hernando de Soto in 1529, by Father Louis Cancer de Barbastro in 1549, and by Tristan de Luna in 1599. These periods of Thanksgiving were along the coasts of Florida, that land of waving palms and tropical sunshine.
Add to the Florida celebrations another early Thanksgiving Feast by Spanish explorers, this one held in Texas as Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and about 1500 of his men held a day of Thanksgiving in May, 1541. In fact, so positive was the Texas Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) that this was the "first" Thanksgiving in America that the organization erected a plaque at the Palo Duro Canyon in Texas in 1959 marking it as the location of "the First Thanksgiving."
France got into the battle for exploration of the New World. In 1564, a group of French Huguenots landed along the St. Johns River in Florida and began a settlement there. Like others who had braved the ocean voyage and had arrived intact in the new land, a Thanksgiving Day marked their feat in 1564.
In September, 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, an experienced admiral from Spain, settled St. Augustine, Florida and called the people together for a mass of thanksgiving. Joining the settlers were the nearby Seloy Indians. The feast for that occasion was garbanzo beans, garlic-flavored pork, hardtack biscuits and red wine.
This festival, coming at the first permanent settlement in America, is considered by many historians to be the first and most continuing Thanksgiving on American soil by foreign settlers. In fact, there has been a quarrel between those who hold to the St. Augustine theory and the Plymouth Colony theory of "first Thanksgiving" site.
Then came the claim of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, and the 1610 date for its Thanksgiving celebration. Why did this one not hold as the first of the English colony Thanksgivings in America? Settled in 1607, Jamestown had a hard time existing. Disease and starvation were rampant. When Lord De La Warr came in 1610 with supplies, the remaining colonists took heart. The Jamestown Colony did not list the word "Thanksgiving" as the intent of the celebration led by the Rev. Richard Buck and Ensign Anthony Scott as this colony took on new life. But Thanksgiving was implied in the gathering and determination to make Jamestown a permanent settlement.
A painting commemorates another English colony Thanksgiving held in 1619 at Berkeley Plantation in Virginia, about thirty miles north of Jamestown. Captain John Woodleefe had this written declaration which began the first Thanksgiving there: "Wee ordaine that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetualy kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty god." It is believed that Thanksgiving Day was held in November when the ship arrived from England. The painting, "The First Thanksgiving," by Sydney King, shows the ship in the James River and the thirty-five men kneeling on shore.
It is interesting that regardless of the country from which the early settlers came, whether from Spain, France or England, they recognized the providence of Almighty God in guiding them through treacherous seas to a land, not necessarily "flowing with milk and honey," but with challenges, hardships, disease and enemies to be overcome.
Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, lobbied for and wrote numerous articles and pamphlets calling for a national day of Thanksgiving from 1846 until 1863. President Lincoln, during the Civil War, decreed that a day of Thanksgiving be held on the second Thursday in November. The day was changed a bit but finally came to rest on the fourth Thursday of each November by decree of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed into law in 1941. It is held on a Thursday from the English tradition of Calvinistic "lecture-days" and harvest festival days. For over six decades now we have held Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November.
c 2008 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published November 27, 2008 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.