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The First “First Thanksgiving”

by Jay Sharp on Nov 18, 1998

Remember the month of November in kindergarten or first grade? You learned that, during the fall of 1621, noble Pilgrims invited friendly and helpful Indians to a feast to celebrate a rich autumn harvest at a new colony called Plymouth, in what is now Massachusetts. They ate stuffed turkeys, baked ham, cranberry sauce and baked yams, then finished the whole thing off with a big slice of pumpkin pie.

That was our very first Thanksgiving. Right?


Virginia colonists had held a Thanksgiving two years earlier in celebration of the safe arrival of new colonists.

So that must have been the first Thanksgiving, right? Wrong again.

Some El Paso, Texas, citizens claim that the first Thanksgiving occurred on the Rio Grande on April 30, 1598, four centuries ago, a few miles downstream from their city’s modern location. It was celebrated by Don Juan de Onate’s expedition upon reaching the river en route to colonize northern New Mexico for Spain.

The El Paso claim notwithstanding, Onate’s Thanksgiving was still not the first in America.

Florida residents point out that an earlier Spanish Thanksgiving occurred near what is now St. Augustine, in September, 1565. The event was celebrated by Don Pedro Menendez’s colonists, who had just landed. Menendez invited the local Indians to the feast. The Spaniards and Indians shared salt pork and sea biscuits.

Florida’s school children are taught that the true first Thanksgiving took place near Jacksonville in 1564, more than half a century before the Pilgrim-Indian feast and 34 years before Onate’s celebration. The Jacksonville Thanksgiving, it is thought, was celebrated by Huguenots — French Protestants — who gave thanks for their new settlement.

Apparently, this was, indeed, the first European Thanksgiving in the United States.

But it was still not our very first Thanksgiving. Credit for that event belongs to the Native Americans.

Among others, the Indians who greeted the Pilgrims when they stepped onto Plymouth Rock had long conducted Thanksgiving festivals six times a year. The date for the first Thanksgiving in America is lost somewhere in pre-history.

In fact, from a worldwide perspective, the concept of giving thanks appears to be universal and ancient, an expression of gratitude to the gods who delivered game and harvest to early hunters and foragers. We see evidence embedded in the folk stories and ceremonies of people who still depend on wild animals and plants for their living. We see it in the figures carved from stone and images painted or scribed on cave walls during antiquity.

I know of a thanks-giving scene, thousands of years old, painted on the wall of a cave in a mountain in the desert of West Texas. It shows a man dancing to celebrate his kill of a mountain sheep, which has a spear driven through its body. The man can now feed his family.

From contemporaneous records, we know that the Pilgrims and Indian had turkey and other game birds as well as sea foods, venison, Indian corn, beans, berries and nuts on their menu in that fall of 1621. They drank mostly beer, wine and whiskies — all safer than the local water. Contrary to popular notion, they did not have cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie or even, unimaginably, football.

The idea of Thanksgiving persisted well beyond the Pilgrims, probably a reflection of humanity’s enduring need to express gratitude for good fortune.

On June 20, 1676, colonists on the eastern seaboard issued the “First Thanksgiving Proclamation,” setting “apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving…”

On October 3, 1789, George Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation, setting the “26th day of November next” as a day for giving thanks to God for “favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late (revolutionary) war.”

Finally, on October 3, 1863, Thanksgiving became an annual American holiday when Abraham Lincoln invited “my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving.”

For 136 years, Thanksgiving has been a day commemorated across America. It gives us a moment to recall the sweet summer just past; to savor the last, fading colors of autumn; to inhale the heady aromas of our new harvests; to relish the coming together, once again, of family and good friends; to cherish the blessings of life.

We can also be thankful that we patterned our Thanksgiving after the feast enjoyed by the Plymouth Pilgrims and Indians rather than the one experienced by the St. Augustine Spaniards and Indians. Turkey tastes a lot better than salt pork and sea biscuits.

Jay Sharp, an independent scholar and photographer based in Las Cruces, N.M., specializing in southwestern history and archaeology, is a writer for the History News Service.