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One Nation, Many Thanksgivings

As people in the United States gather to celebrate and eat with family members, they are likely putting out a traditional menu to honor what was served in that meal between early European settlers and the tribes they found living on the land they were claiming. However, even though recognition of the pilgrim’s meal with the Wampanoag is the one remembered, it was not actually the first thanksgiving meal in North America.

As England gained control of the central Atlantic coast, their feast was remembered over others. But ocean voyages were hard, and it was not uncommon to have a feast to celebrate a landing. One of the many "first thanksgivings" was held in Florida.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés brought eight hundred Spanish settlers to claim Florida. They landed in what later became St. Augustine, Florida. As soon as the party arrived on the shore on September 8th, 1565, they celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving led by Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales. A few days later they invited the Seloy tribe that inhabited the area to a feast. The Spanish provided cocido, a rustic stew made from slated and dried pork and garbanzo beans mixed with seasonings and wine, the menu that sustained their journey. The Seloy contributed foods like tortoise, sea catfish, mullet, and the Three Sisters that sustained most Indigenous people – corn, beans, and winter squashes. The Spanish arrival led to the establishment of the oldest European settlement in North America and today at the Mission of Nombre de Dios, a giant cross commemorates the exact spot.

Fort Matanzas National Monument sits near where Pedro Menéndez de Avilés encountered the first French troops. Coming to North America was not an easy trip. Just two weeks after the Spanish arrived, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés learned that a newly established French settlement called Fort Caroline was just thirty miles north of Castillo de San Marcos, led by French leader Jean Ribault. Riboult decided to attack the Spanish before they attacked his fort, but his ships were hit by a storm and two groups of French survivors were stranded to the south of St. Augustine. While they were struggling to survive, the Spanish marched north and claimed the Fort Caroline, massacring the French Huguenots who had established the town, and claiming it as Spanish Fort Mateo.

After that first massacre of French protestants, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés learned of the stranded French troops and marched south. The French were killed near the Matanzas River, apart from a few skilled Catholics. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés made it clear prior to the executions that those killed deserved to die for coming to “his majesty’s land” and disseminating the religious beliefs of the “evil Lutheran sect.” He believed that God had led the Spanish to the land to “enlighten the natives in those things which the Holy Mother Church of Rome teaches and believes, for the salvation of their souls.”

Two years after the event, a Professor at the University of Salamanca back in Spain justified the massacres. Bartolomé Barrientos wrote, “He acted as an excellent inquisitor; for when asked if they were Catholics or Lutherans, they dared to proclaim themselves publicly as Lutherans, without fear of God or shame before men; and thus he gave them that death which their insolence deserved. And even in that he was very merciful in granting them a noble and honourable death, by cutting off their heads, when he could legally have burnt them alive.” Later, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés claimed that his actions were the compassionate one because all of the Europeans were struggling to survive, and he did not have enough food and water to keep hundreds of prisoners alive without his own group perishing to the elements. However, he also reported that several hundred of the Lutherans had escaped into the woods and joined the tribal people they found living in them. Because of the heresy of the Lutheran faith and the risk to the immortal souls of the native people, he stated that “since they are Lutherans and in order that so evil a sect shall not remain alive in these parts, I will conduct myself in such wise, and will so incite my friends, the Indians, on their part, that in five or six weeks very few if any will remain alive.”

Over one thousand French soldiers and settlers were massacred before the end of that first harvest season.

We remember the thanksgiving feast in the northern United States but have forgotten that not all parts of this nation were settled by the English. The Dutch, French, and Spanish all had settlements in what later became the United States, and each held thanksgiving feasts. After the Revolutionary War, George Washington suggested a single day to give thanks – November 26th. But it wasn’t until the Civil War that the day we know as Thanksgiving became a national holiday. As the nation remained bitterly divided, Lincoln asked that the last Thursday in November be a day when all gathered in their homes and churches to pray for a return to peace. As you gather this year, do not just remember the day as one when survival was celebrated. Giving thanks is a way to live in and with compassion for all others. As you celebrate, remember those lost during colonization and those stories we do not tell. Each story of Thanksgiving feasts we tell has its own story of the violence that occurred during colonization. Each feast has a second, often hidden story of people harmed during those centuries. As we give thanks, let us never forget those lost as Europe invaded North America.

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