Myth: The First Thanksgiving in America was celebrated in Plymouth in 1621. It was a day of thanksgiving, celebrated by a feast between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. It is because of this we have the national holiday of Thanksgiving.
Truth: We all know the story behind the first Thanksgiving, right? The pilgrims were starving because they did not know how to plant crops or build shelter when they arrived. The Indians, led by Squanto, saved the pilgrims by teaching them how to survive and how to successfully grow crops. By the fall of 1621, the pilgrims held a harvest feast, invited the Wampanoag Indians, and declared it a day of Thanksgiving.
This is a nice story, and one that has inspired the national holiday Thanksgiving, but it is not very accurate. For the pilgrims, a day of thanksgiving equaled a day of solemn prayer, not a feast with “non-believers.” The feast most likely did take place in 1621, but the first official day of thanksgiving declared by the pilgrims wasn’t until 1623.
Thanksgiving itself was only made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln many years later in the mid 19th century. Although there are some disputes about the accuracy of the reports of the 1621 feast, most people agree that the feast did happen and that it was the first Thanksgiving in America.
However, the first actual “Thanksgiving” feast was held in 1565. And it wasn’t the English pilgrims; instead it was the Spanish Catholic missionaries in St. Augustine, Florida. They celebrated a day of thanksgiving on September 8, 1565, the day they came ashore. Their head priest, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, offered a Catholic Mass, followed by a feast celebration shared between the Spanish settlers and the Timucua Indians. For Catholics, Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist, a word that literally means “thanksgiving.” Years later, another group of Spanish settlers in Texas declared their own day of Thanksgiving on April 30, 1598. Therefore, the Spanish preceded the English pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts in declaring the first official Thanksgiving feast in America by over twenty years.
The Thanksgiving we all know in Plymouth is what we think of when we celebrate this holiday. But this feast barely resembled our well-established traditions, if at all. These traditions have been born over the years and did not originate from either the Pilgrims or the Spanish. For example, if we did get our traditions from the Spanish, we’d all be eating bean soup instead of turkey. Regardless of its origins, the “giving of thanks” has remained an integral symbol of the founding of this country, which is why we commemorate Thanksgiving Day as a national federal holiday each year.
“The First Thanksgiving” by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe
“A picture of the first mass said in St. Augustine, Florida,” unknown artist
Post by Anne Ciskanik