The REAL first Thanksgiving feast? Hint: not turkey

Does history depend on who writes it? We honor the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving. But Florida historians say that America’s REAL first feast took place more than a half century before—and was a whole different story (with different food). What do you think about this little-known piece of history?

Watch this video about the real first feast—and read the story below.


The REAL First Thanksgiving feast?

True or False: The Pilgrims celebrated America’s first thanksgiving, a harvest festival in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621.

You may have answered “True,” based on what you learned in elementary school. But, according to research by Florida historians, the answer is “False.” The REAL first thanksgiving celebration actually took place 56 years earlier, in St. Augustine, 50 miles south of present-day Jacksonville.

On September 8, 1565, Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed in St. Augustine with 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, and 100 civilian farmers and craftsmen, some with wives and children. After claiming La Florida on behalf of Spanish monarch Philip II, Menéndez and his entourage celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving for the expedition’s safe arrival and then shared a meal with the native Indians.

These stand as the first documented thanksgiving events in a permanent settlement anywhere in North America north of Mexico, said Michael Gannon, an eminent Florida historian who holds the title of Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida.

Gannon’s research indicates that the REAL first thanksgiving meal probably consisted of “cocido,” a stew of garbanzo beans, salted pork, and garlic, accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. If the native Indians contributed food to the meal, they might have brought protein sources such as deer, gopher tortoise, shark, drum, mullet, and sea catfish, and vegetables such as maize (corn), beans, squash, nuts, fruits, and miscellaneous greens.

Gannon’s findings are based on documents from the Menéndez expedition and research by archaeologists. But despite such irrefutable evidence, Gannon said it would be difficult to change American lore about this traditional holiday.

“It is very difficult to get the powered-wig states to the north of Florida to recognize St. Augustine’s priority among American cities,” he said. “Even historians and journalists, particularly those of an Anglo-American bent, seem reluctant to accord any special stature to that dark-haired community, which was set in place one year following the death of Michelangelo and the birth of William Shakespeare.”

Gannon also noted that by the time the British colonies Jamestown and Plymouth were founded, “St. Augustine, Florida, was up for urban renewal. It was a city with fort, church, market, college seminary, six-bed hospital, and 120 shops and homes.”

So, as we begin this season’s preparations for a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, vegetables, breads and, of course, pumpkin pie—don’t forget the garbanzo beans!

© Florida Humanities Council

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