If you want to be historically accurate this holiday, serve alligator

In the autumn of 1621, in celebration of their first successful corn harvest, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony hunted wildfowl and held a feast that was attended by local members of the Wampanoag Tribe, which contributed five deer. History books and countless American schoolchildren know this communal meal as the famous “First Thanksgiving.”

Except that it wasn’t.

Pedro Menendez de Aviles
Pedro Menendez de Aviles

Fifty-six years before the Pilgrims celebrated their feast, Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived on the coast of Florida. He came ashore on September 8, 1565, naming the land on which he stepped “St. Augustine” in honor of the saint on whose feast day, Aug. 28, the land was sighted. Members of the Timucua tribe, which had occupied the site for more than 4,000 years, greeted Menéndez and his group of some 800 Catholic colonists peacefully.

Colonial records indicate that on the date they came ashore, and in gratitude for their safe arrival, the Spanish celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving, the very first Catholic mass on American soil. According to the memoirs of Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who celebrated the mass, once “the feast day [was] observed . . . after mass, ‘the Adelantado [Menendez] had the Indians fed and dined himself.” As University of Florida professor Michael Gannon noted in his seminal book, The Cross in the Sand, “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land.”

From what we know of the food provisions stocked on Menendez’s ships, the meal that the Spaniards and Timucua shared on September 8, 1565, was probably cocido, a stew made from salted pork and garbanzo beans, laced with garlic seasoning and accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. The Timucua, as invited guests, would have contributed food to the communal meal–likely local game and fish, along with grains, corn, beans, and squash.

In a very early version of barbecue, the Timucua roast native fowl and marine animals, including alligators.
In a very early version of barbecue, the Timucua roast native fowl and marine animals, including alligators.

Interestingly, although Dr. Gannon’s book was published in 1965, no one paid attention to the documentation it contained about “the real First Thanksgiving” until 1985, when an AP reporter called Gannon looking for a new angle on the holiday. When the AP sent out the resulting article on their national wire two days before Thanksgiving, it was, to quote Dr. Gannon, “a shocker, because Thanksgiving in Plymouth was the national iconic moment, and here I’d called that into question in a very serious way.” Immediately besieged by the press, Dr. Gannon was being interviewed on television when his host, a TV reporter, said: “’As we speak, the selectmen in Plymouth are holding an emergency meeting to deal with this information that there were Spaniards in Florida before there were Englishmen in Massachusetts.’ And I said: ‘Good, you can tell them for me that by the time the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.’” Within weeks, a group of irate New Englanders took to calling Gannon “The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

But here’s the problem with Gannon’s First Thanksgiving in Florida. It wasn’t first either.

René de Goulaine de Laudonnière

On June 30, 1564—a year before the St. Augustine celebration—the French explorer Rene Goulaine de Laudonnière called for a feast to celebrate the establishment of Fort Caroline atop the St. Johns Bluff, near present-day Jacksonville. (Laudonnière had reached the coast of Florida on June 22, and then proceeded up the waterway that Jean Ribault, two years earlier, had dubbed the River of May; today, we know it as the St. Johns River.) The Timucua Indians warmly welcomed the French Huguenots and helped prepare a feast in their honor. “We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God,” Laudonnière wrote of the ensuing celebration, “beseeching Him that it would please His Grace to continue His accustomed goodness toward us.”

Jacques Le Moyne's engraving of the Timucuan chief showing Rene Laudonniere the Ft. Caroline marker erected by Jean Ribault in 1522.
Jacque Le Moyne’s engraving of the Timucuan chief showing Rene Laudonniere the marker erected by Jean Ribault in 1562.

Given the depleted state of the French food provisions after their long journey, much of the celebratory meal would likely have been provided by the Timucua, who were excellent hunters and had access to enormous granaries that were used to store and dispense commonly harvested agricultural goods. Since we know quite a bit about the Timucuan diet, we can surmise that Laudonnière’s feast would have included corn, beans, squash and pumpkins (which the Timucua farmed on a limited basis), as well as local fowl, oysters, shrimp, mullet, deer, and, yes, alligator. (Apparently, the Timucua preferred it smoked.) The group likely also enjoyed fresh cherries, blueberries, blackberries, mulberries and muscadine grapes—although there’s no record of any pie.

Can we conclusively determine that Laudonniere’s 1564 feast is the mother of all American Thanksgivings? Probably not. It must be noted that many prior European explorers offered prayers of thanksgiving upon their safe arrivals in Florida, including Juan Ponce de León, in 1513 and 1521, Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528, Hernando de Soto in 1529, Father Luis Cáncer de Barbastro in 1549, and Tristán de Luna in 1559. Also, assuredly, each of these explorers came into contact with native peoples and, most likely, would have had to rely not only on their kindness and goodwill, but also their food.

The Timucua, as depicted by Jacques Le Moyne, prepare a feast for to commemorate Laudonniere's visit..
The Timucua, as depicted by Jacques Le Moyne, prepare a feast for to commemorate Laudonniere’s visit..

So, given the historical evidence, why does the story of the Pilgrims dominate Thanksgiving, instead of either the French Huguenots or the Spanish Catholics in Florida?

It helps to remember that it is the victors that typically write history. The English beat out Spain and France for control of North America. Therefore, it is English laws, customs, ceremonies and traditions that have been promoted as our foundational myths. Another reason, perhaps, is that when the United States officially established the November Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, Florida was still part of the Confederacy.

In fact, Lincoln may have popularized the theme of Pilgrims and Indians eating happily together as a metaphor for how the divided Union and Confederate states might once again achieve unity. Despite such efforts, several southern states refused to celebrate Thanksgiving because they thought it was an abolitionist plot. Indeed, Thanksgiving didn’t become a national holiday until World War II.

The only thing we can claim with reasonable certainty is that, wherever and whenever it occurred in Florida, the first Thanksgiving did not include turkey, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole or Parker House rolls. But this Thanksgiving, as we gather in gratitude for America’s bounty and promise, we would do well to reflect that the true inspiration for this beloved holiday can be traced right to our own Florida backyard.