Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Real First Thanksgiving?

If you ask the average American who held the first Thanksgiving in what would become the United States, they would most likely say the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts Colony in 1621. They would also be wrong. The fact is that, when it came to holding a Thanksgiving festival, the Pilgrims were relative latecomers.

Indeed, I should not have to point out how incredibly Eurocentric it is to even insist any Europeans held the first thanksgiving festival. Thanksgiving ceremonies are to be found among many different Native American tribes, and there can be no doubt that such ceremonies were held well before the arrival of Europeans on American shores. The Cherokee have several different ceremonies at which they give thanks, including the Great New Moon Ceremony, the Exalting Bush Festival, and the Ripe Corn Ceremony. The Seneca have Thanksgiving rituals that last four days, and other Iroquois nations have their own Thanksgiving rituals. It would seem that not only were Europeans not the first people to celebrate Thanksgiving on American soil, but as the various Native tribes never recorded the dates of their first Thanksgiving ceremonies, we will probably never know when the real first Thanksgiving was held in what became the United States.

Of course, even when one considers who the first Europeans were to hold a Thanksgiving ceremony in what would become the United States, the Pilgrims arrived late to the party. There are various arguments made for various European groups as those who held the first Thanksgiving, but the best candidates for the title are Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his men. Coronado and his expedition had left Mexico to search for the Seven Cities of Cibola, the legendary cities of gold. Instead Cornoado and his men found themselves in what we call the Staked Plains, in Spanish Llano Estacado. Coronado described the Staked Plains as a "sea of grass." As there were no visible landmarks, Corando's expedition travelled in circles for days. At last they reached the Palo Duro Canyon in what is now the Texas Panhandle. It was there that Coronado and his men encountered the friendly Querechos, most likely what we would call today Apaches. It was on Ascension Thursday, 23 May 1541, that Coronado's expedition celebrated a Thanksgiving ceremony with the Natives. Friar Juan de Padilla said a Thanksgiving Mass.

Despite the documentation that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his expedition were the first Europeans to celebrate Thanksgiving on American soil, there are those who claim the first Europeans to hold a Thankgiving ceremony were in St. Augustine in what is now Florida. Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez had been appointed governor of Florida by King Philip II. The king charged him with founding a permanent settlement and taking control of the region. It was on 4 September 1565 that Admiral Menendez and 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, 100 civilian families landed in Northern Florida after an arduous crossing by sea. He named the new settlement San Augustin--in English Saint Augustine. Thankful for having survived their voyage across the Atlantic, the Spanish colonists and the friendly Timucuan Natives gathered around a makeshift altar and said a Catholic Mass. Afterwards the colonists and the Timucuans held a thanksgiving feast, to which the Spanish brought pork, garbanzo beans, olive oil, and wine, while the Timucuans brought oysters and giant clams. Held in 1565, the Thanksgiving feast occurred a full fourteen years after the Thanksgiving held by Coronado's expedition. It would seem that at best Saint Augustine, Florida can lay claim to the second Thanksgiving ceremony held by Europeans in what would become the United States, the first having been held by Coronado and his men, although they can lay claim to the first Thanksgiving celebration held in a permanent European settlement.

Not only were the Pilgrims not the first Europeans to hold a Thanksgiving feast in what would become the United States, they were not even the first Englishmen. That honour would go to the men and women who settled Berkeley Hundred in 1619, over a year before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts. It was in 1619 that the ship Margaret, carrying thirty-eight colonists,  set sail from Bristol under the command of Captain John Woodliffe. The Margaret landed at Berkeley Hundred on 4 December 1619. The charter of the colony ordained that the day of the ship's arrival in Virginia would be celebrated annually as a day of Thanksgiving. Having landed at Berkeley Hundred, the settlers did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving, the first in the British Colonies. We are not absolutely certain what was served at Berkeley Hundred's first Thanksgiving feast, but it was believed to be perch, shad, rockfish, and oysters. Thanksgiving in Berkeley Hundred was indeed an annual feast, but sadly it would not last. In Virginia in 1622 there was a massive Native American massacre from which Berkeley Hundred was not spared. Berkeley Hundred was abandoned for many years until it was established as Berkeley Plantation. It would become the home of the Harrisons, one of the First Families of Virginia, to whom Presidents William  Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison belonged.

The Pilgrims were then hardly the first people in what would become the United States to hold a Thanksgiving feast. Indeed, that honour most likely goes to a group of Native Americans thousands of years ago whose names have not been recorded in history. The Pilgrims were not even the first Europeans to hold a Thanksgiving feast, that honour going to the Coronado expedition. They were not even the first permanent settlers to hold a Thanksgiving feast, that honour goes to the colonists of San Augustin. They were not even the first Englishmen to hold a Thanksgiving feast on American soil, as that honour goes to the colonists of Berkeley Hundred. While the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving feast has long figured in American pop culture, it was hardly the first Thanksgiving held in what would become the United States.

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