While Thanksgiving conjures up images of Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims sharing turkey and corn with Native Americans, Florida had its own role in America’s earliest Thanksgiving celebrations.
Decades before the Pilgrims gathered around a table in Massachusetts in 1621, Florida had seen at least two separate Thanksgiving celebrations and, as in the more familiar tale from New England, they involved Native Americans and religious liberty.
The first one took place in 1564 on the southern bank of the St. Johns River in modern-day Jacksonville. French colonists led by Rene de Laudonniere settled at Fort Caroline, along the St. Johns, which they called the River of May, motivated by a variety of reasons -- including practicing their Calvinist faith in peace as well as to threaten the Spanish treasure fleet coming up from Mexico and South America. Laudonniere and the French settlers invited members of the local Timucuan tribe to share in their Thanksgiving feast.
In September 1565, a Spanish force led by devout Catholic Pedro Menendez de Aviles established its own colony called St. Augustine which was south of the French settlement. The Spanish also celebrated a Thanksgiving feast, which local natives attended, before readying themselves to confront the French. While the French attempted to strike by sea at the new Spanish base, their ships were scattered by a hurricane. Menendez took advantage of the opportunity and marched north, capturing Fort Caroline without much resistance. When the Spanish encountered some of the shipwrecked French, Menendez had most of them executed -- not because they were French, but because they were Protestants.
While there were severe religious differences between the French Huguenots and the Spanish Catholics, both groups started their colonial efforts with Thanksgiving celebrations, offering prayers of thanks for safely arriving in the New World.
There are sites commemorating both groups. Mainly through the efforts of longtime Florida U.S. Rep. Charles Bennett, a replica of Fort Caroline stands in Jacksonville as part of the federal Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Bennett was obsessed with the French colony and, before catching polio during his service in World War II, spent countless hours on St. Johns Bluff in Jacksonville trying to map out the location of the doomed settlement. Besides fighting for establishing a national memorial to Fort Caroline, Bennett wrote and edited a host of books on the colony, including a new version of Laudonniere’s autobiography.
Menendez established St. Augustine, which remains the oldest, continually inhabited city in the United States. While most of the historic monuments in St. Augustine, including the imposing Castillo de San Marcos fortress, are from a later date, some historians approximate the Spanish forces landing near what is now the site of the Mission of Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady of la Leche. This site, run by the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, commemorates the permanent establishment of Christianity in the United States with a majestic cross more than 200 feet high. Back in 2010, the diocese held a ceremony marking the 445th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, which included moving Menendez’s casket into a new museum at the site.
There may have been even earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in what is now the United States. Historians know, for example, that a Thanksgiving celebration was held during Coronado’s exploration of the Southwest. It is reasonable to assume that other Spanish exploration missions -- including those of Juan Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto in Florida -- may have also had Thanksgiving events.
There are several possible reasons the story of the Pilgrims dominated Thanksgiving instead of either the French Huguenots or the Spanish Catholics in Florida. For example, the United States officially established the November Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, when Florida was part of the Confederacy. Catholics remained, until recent decades, a unique and often isolated part of American culture. Until the latter half of the 20th century, Florida remained one of the more isolated and less settled states in the nation. But as America grows more Hispanic and continues to move down I-95 and I-75, the Florida version of Thanksgiving grows more relevant with each passing year.