Forget the pilgrims: Spaniards were the first to celebrate Thanksgiving

Sticklers for tradition should really abandon the turkey and pumpkin pie on the fourth Thursday of November, and instead celebrate with jamón washed down with Rioja, as historical research claims Spanish sailors created the first Thanksgiving dinner.

A 1925 recreation of Brownscombe's earlier 1914 painting of the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth
Numerous historical paintings such as this one from 1925 have depicted English pilgrims as the first to celebrate Thanksgiving, when in fact Spanish explorers did so first 60 years earlier.Photo: Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1925, Wikimedia

As people all over the United States sit down to carve the turkey and remember the pilgrims who sat down for Thanksgiving in 1621 they may be surprised to learn that they are in fact celebrating the wrong date entirely.

The history books tell us that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621 by English pilgrims who had arrived in America on the Mayflower. 

In 2019, archaeologists at Florida’s Museum of Natural History revealed that the first Thanksgiving was actually celebrated in St. Augustine, Florida over 50 years earlier on September 8th 1565. 

It was not the English pilgrims in their wide-brimmed hats who celebrated the first Thanksgiving, but Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 soldiers, sailors and settlers. 

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Photo: Georgetown University/Creative Commons /Wikimedia

They attended a special Thanksgiving mass before sitting down together with local Native Americans for a thanksgiving feast, according to Kathleen Deagan, research curator emerita of historical archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

And far from the traditional turkey, the first Thanksgiving feast included salted pork and typical Spanish products such as red wine, olives and chickpeas.

While there might not have been a cranberry in sight, the first Thanksgiving feast may have included some typical Caribbean foods that Menéndez picked up when he stopped in Puerto Rico before landing in Florida.

The local Timucuan people may have also contributed to the feast, bringing “corn, fresh fish, berries or beans,” according to Deagan.

The first Thanksgiving feast probably took place along the banks of the Matanzas River, the site of the first Spanish colony in the United States.

Another early 20th century depiction of the first Thanksgiving feast, purported to have been in 1621 when in fact it’s likely to have taken place decades earlier. Painting: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Menéndez de Avilés had lost half his fleet on the voyage from Spain, and one of the first things he did on reaching the “New World” was to organise a mass of Thanksgiving, followed by a feast.

“He invited all the local native people who were so curious about them,” said Deagan.

But how has this important part of US history been forgotten?

In part, it is because over the centuries the history of the United States has been heavily anglicised, with America’s origins viewed as primarily British.

“The fact is, the first colony was a melting pot and the cultural interactions of the many groups of people in the colony were much more like the US is today than the British colonies ever were,” Gifford Waters, historical archaeology collection manager at the Florida Museum, told the University of Florida news.

“I think the true story of the first Thanksgiving is especially important, since there is a growing Hispanic population in the U.S. and the role of the Spanish colony in La Florida is often neglected in the classroom,” he added.

King Felipe and Queen Letizia standing with an actor dressed as Pedro de Menéndez de Avilés in St Augustine (Florida) in 2015. Photo: GERARDO MORA/GETTY/AFP

St Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States, and in 2015 it celebrated its 450th anniversary – it was founded by Menédez de Avilés on September 8th 1565. 

Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia visited the city on their first trip to the USA in 2015 to take part in the anniversary celebrations. 


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13 changes you may have missed about Spain’s new ‘Civil War’ law

Spain's Democratic Memory Law is the Spanish government's attempt to deal with the complicated historical legacies of its Civil War. Here are 13 takeaways you might have missed from the controversial legislation.

13 changes you may have missed about Spain’s new ‘Civil War’ law

Spain’s new Democratic Memory Law, sometimes called the Historical Memory Law, passed the Spanish Senate on October 5th 2022 and officially became law a few weeks later, on October 21st.

It is a piece of wide-ranging but controversial legislation that aims to settle Spanish democracy’s debt to its past and deal with the complicated legacies of its Civil War and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which lasted from 1939 to 1975.

Legislation concerning Spain’s dictatorial past is always controversial, and this law was no different – it passed the Spanish Senate with 128 votes in favour, 113 against, and 18 abstentions.

The Spanish right has long been opposed to any kind of historical memory legislation, claiming that it digs up old rivalries and causes political tension. Spain’s centre-right party, the PP, have promised to overturn the law if it wins the next general election.

READ ALSO: Spain’s lawmakers pass bill honouring Franco-era victims

But what does the law actually say?

And what does it do?

The Local has broken down thirteen of the key takeaways you might have missed.

  • Convictions – The law declares Francoist courts illegal, therefore annulling convictions made by them or any affiliated criminal or administrative bodies since 1936. According to the official bill (BOE), which you can find here, Article 5 deals with “the illegality and illegitimacy of the courts, juries and any other criminal or administrative bodies that, since the Coup d’état of 1936, imposed, for political, ideological, religious conscience or belief, convictions or sanctions of a personal nature”. 
  • Locating victims – The Spanish government will lead the search for the thousands of missing persons left over from the Civil War and disappearances during the dictatorship. A map of potential mass grave sites will be created and according to Article 16 of the law, “annual exhumation data will be made public… which will include the number of registered petitions, the number of graves and remains of people located.” Article 17 outlines plans for an ‘integrated map’ to help locate victims and burial sites, which will cover the whole of Spain.

    Remains in the bottom of a mass grave at the San Roque cemetery in Puerto Real near Cádiz. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP
  • DNA bank – To aid in this search, a state-run DNA bank will be created to help the descendants of missing victims better compare genetic profiles during the identification of the remains. Article 23 of the law describes this as a “state-owned DNA database, attached to the Ministry of Justice, which will have the function of receiving and storing DNA profiles of victims of the Civil War and the dictatorship and their families, as well as people affected by the abduction of newborns”. 
  • Census – A ‘National Census of Victims of the Civil War and the Dictatorship’ will also be created in order to try and piece together the often fragmented information available about those who died during the Civil War, and countless victims of ‘forced disappearances’ during the dictatorship. 
  • Victimhood – The law also redefines the definition of what a victim is, extending it to someone who suffered physical, moral or psychological harm, property damage, or any infringement of their fundamental rights at the hands of Francoism. The dates for this new definition are from the date of the initial coup d’état on July 18th, 1936, all the way up until the creation of the 1978 Constitution. 
  • Days of Remembrance: Two days to remember: the law sets aside October 31st as a day of tribute to all the victims of the military coup, the Civil War and the dictatorship, whereas May 8th will be used as a day of memory for all the men, women and children exiled due to the dictatorship.
  • The Valley of the Fallen – The controversial Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), where Franco was buried but has since been exhumed and moved, is to be renamed Valle de Cuelgamuros and the mausoleum repurposed. 

    READ ALSO: Spain to relocate remains of Franco’s fascist allies to more low-key grave

  • Human rights violations: a specialised prosecutor will investigate violations of international law and human rights that occurred during the Francoist period. Article 28 outlines the role of a prosecutor “created to investigate acts that constitute violations of international human rights law… including those that took place during the coup d’état, Civil War and the Dictatorship”. 
  • Francoist symbolism: Symbols, shields, insignia, plaques and any other symbolism glorifying Franco or Francoism, including objects attached to public buildings or displayed on public roads, will be removed. It also introduces measures to deal with the revocation of distinctions, appointments, titles and other institutional honours, including decorations and rewards or noble titles, which were bestowed during the dictatorship.
  • Groups banned – Equally, any foundations and associations considered Franco-apologist, or that glorify and engage in the direct or indirect incitement of hatred or violence against the victims of the Civil War and dictatorship, will be banned.
  • Education -The legislation also makes an attempt to better educate young Spaniards about the historical legacies of Francoism. The curriculum of ESO, FP and Baccalaureate courses will be updated to highlight “the repression that occurred during the war and the dictatorship”. 
  • International Brigade – Descendants of soldiers who fought in the International Brigades on the side of the Republicans will be eligible for fast-track Spanish citizenship as a result of the legislation, and they won’t have to give up their other nationality in order to do so.

    READ ALSO: Descendants of International Brigades can get fast-track Spanish nationality

    The fighters themselves have been able to apply for Spanish citizenship since 1996, though they were required to drop their other nationality. Spain’s 2007 Historical Memory Law removed that requirement, though the offer of citizenship was not extended to their descendants. According to the Asociación de Amigos de las Brigadas Internacionales (AABI), a group involved with drafts of the legislation, there are at least one hundred known descendants that could benefit from the symbolic citizenship offer.

  • Ley de Nietos – Known as the Grandchildren’s Law in English, the law also allows for descendants of Spaniards who fled Spain during the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship to claim Spanish citizenship without ever having lived there. According to estimates, as many as 700,000 people, the majority in Latin America, could be eligible. It is even believed that Latino migrants living in Spain illegally could be eligible for citizenship. Between the end of the Civil War in 1939, and 1978, when Spain’s new constitution was approved as part of its transition to democracy, an estimated two million Spaniards fled the Franco regime.
    READ ALSO: Spain’s new ‘grandchildren’ citizenship law: What you need to know