SHARE
COPY LINK

HISTORY

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. 

READ ALSO: 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

SPANISH HISTORY

Spain’s Emperor Charles V’s secret code cracked after five centuries

A team of researchers has cracked a five century-old code which reveals a rumoured French plot to kill the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V.

Spain's Emperor Charles V's secret code cracked after five centuries

Charles was one of the most powerful men of the 16th century, presiding over a vast empire that took in much of western Europe and the Americas during a reign of more than 40 years.

It took the team from the Loria research lab in eastern France six months to decipher the letter written in 1547 by the emperor to his ambassador in France.

The tumultuous period saw a succession of wars and tensions between Spain and France, ruled at that time by Francis I, the Renaissance ruler who brought Leonardo da Vinci from Italy.

The letter from Charles V to Jean de Saint-Mauris had languished forgotten for centuries in the collections of the Stanislas library in Nancy.

Cecile Pierrot, a cryptographer from Loria, first heard of its existence at a dinner in 2019, and after much searching was able to set eyes on it in 2021.

Bearing the signature of Charles V, it was at once mysterious and utterly incomprehensible, she told reporters on Wednesday.

‘Snapshot of strategy’ 

In painstaking work backed by computers, Pierrot found “distinct families” of some 120 symbols used by Charles V.

“Whole words are encrypted with a single symbol” and the emperor replaced vowels coming after consonants with marks, she said, an inspiration probably coming from Arabic.

In another obstacle, he also used symbols that mean nothing to mislead any adversary trying to decipher the message. The breakthrough came in June, when Pierrot managed to make out a phrase in the letter, and the team then cracked the code with the help of historian Camille Desenclos.

“It was painstaking and long work but there was really a breakthrough that happened in one day, where all of a sudden we had the right hypothesis,” she said.

Another letter from Jean de Saint-Mauris, where the receiver had doodled a form of transcription code in the margin, also helped.

Researcher at the French National Institute for Computer Science Research (INRIA) Cecile Pierrot (L) and senior lecturer in modern history Camille Desenclos (R) explain the decoding process of an encrypted letter from Charles V, known as Charles Quint, the Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria, dated back to 1547, at the Stanislas library in Nancy, northeastern France, on November 23, 2022. – Researchers in computer science, a cryptographer and a historian decrypted the letter from Charles V dating back to the 16th century. (Photo by Jean-Christophe Verhaegen / AFP)

More discoveries to come

Desenclos said it was “rare as a historian to manage to read a letter that no one had managed to read for five centuries.”

It “confirms the somewhat degraded state” in 1547 of relations between Francis I and Charles V, who had signed a peace treaty three years earlier, she said.

But relations were still tense between the two, with various attempts to weaken each other, she said.

So much so that one nugget of information revealed was the rumour of an assassination plot against Charles V that was said to have been brewing in France, Desenclos said.

She said “not much had been known” about the plot but it underlined the monarch’s “fear”.

The researchers now hope to identify other letters between the emperor and his ambassador “to have a snapshot of Charles V’s strategy in Europe”, she said.

“It is likely that we will make many more discoveries in the coming years,” the historian said.

SHOW COMMENTS