Thursday, November 25, 2004

For years, Virginians have protested history books’ teaching the Old Dominion’s children that America’s first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Massachusetts in 1621.

Nonsense, say the Virginians: Thanksgiving began at Berkeley Plantation in 1619, a full year before the Pilgrims set foot in New England.

Now, the old rivalry faces new competition from those who say the true first Thanksgiving was celebrated many decades before the English arrived at either Jamestown or Plymouth Rock.

In Florida. In Spanish.

Que pasa?

It was at the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565 that Pedro Menendez de Aviles and 800 Spanish settlers shared a communal meal with the Timucuan Indians.

“Schools today only place emphasis on the English settlement in Plymouth, but the Spanish were here long before them,” said Jay Humphrey, communications director for the St. Augustine Visitors and Convention Bureau. “The first urban renewal plan for St. Augustine was dated in 1620. … So, while the Pilgrims were starving in the woods and fighting off the Indians, there had already been a thriving city here for over three generations.”

The first Florida feast in 1565 most likely included wild turkey, venison, salted pork stew and vegetables, said historian Michael Gannon, author of “The Cross in the Sand,” about Florida’s early Colonial history.

Expressions of thankfulness to God probably were commonplace among the first Spanish arrivals in the New World, Mr. Gannon said. But because the British ultimately edged out the Spanish — and French and Dutch — in colonizing North America, he says, our history books have ignored those other celebrations.

“The British Empire created the myths and holidays regarding Thanksgiving,” Mr. Gannon said. “It’s as if the Spanish were never even here.”

Yet, here they were: Ponce de Leon explored Florida in 1513, and Hernando de Soto traversed the South in the 1540s. But there was not a permanent European settlement in what was to become the United States until the Menendez expedition reached the Florida coast on Sept. 9, 1565.

“St. Augustine became the first permanent, official colony, all thanks to Mr. Menendez,” Mr. Gannon said.

St. Augustine is not the only claimant for a pre-Pilgrim Thanksgiving en Espanol. Texans — never ones to back down from any battle for bragging rights — say that a 1541 Catholic Mass celebrated in the vicinity of modern-day Dallas by the expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado qualifies as the nation’s first Thanksgiving. If that’s not good enough, Texans say, Spanish settlers crossing the Rio Grande celebrated Thanksgiving in El Paso in 1598.

It’s unlikely, however, that those earlier celebrations ever will be routinely portrayed in grade-school pageants the way American children for decades have dressed up in Indian and Pilgrim costumes to act out the famous Thanksgiving of Plymouth Rock fame.

The English settlers who had survived the bitter first winter at the Plymouth Colony gathered in the fall of 1621 with the local Wampanoag Indians for a three-day feast that included turkey and venison.

Everything known about that New England feast comes from two paragraphs in a December 1621 letter by colonist Edward Winslow, who declared to a friend in England: “And although it be not always so plentiful as it was this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Folks in Virginia say they don’t begrudge the Pilgrims their thankfulness.

“I think anyone who rode over to America in one of those little boats in the dead of winter would give thanks to God upon their arrival,” said Sandy Wainright, a tour guide at Berkeley Plantation in Charles City. “Berkeley, however, has the only officially documented Thanksgiving celebration.”

The Smyth of Nibley papers, she says, are the first official papers to document a Thanksgiving celebration — held on Dec. 4, 1619, by Capt. John Woodlief and his 38 men upon their arrival at Berkeley. The men had a religious celebration in order to give thanks to God for their safe travel.

The folks in Massachusetts acknowledge that such ceremonies were commonplace.

“Thanksgiving celebrations were probably held all over the nation,” said Paula Fisher, marketing manager of Plymouth County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The misconception is that the Pilgrims were the first people to arrive in America at Plymouth, but we know there were other people before them.”

Yet, the tradition we now celebrate began at Plymouth, Mrs. Fisher said.

“The Pilgrims instituted the tradition of feasting and fellowship that Thanksgiving is known for today, and they are to thank for that,” she said.

In fact, the official national holiday is of more recent origin. In 1863, President Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving after the Union’s 1863 victory in the battle of Gettysburg. Congress didn’t make Thanksgiving a federal holiday, however, until 1941.

Although St. Augustine now is proud to boast of the nation’s Thanksgiving, the historian whose research is the basis of that claim says the long battle over the turkey-day title isn’t as important as the celebration itself.

After all, Mr. Gannon says, there is only one line in “The Cross in the Sand” that even mentions that first Florida feast.

“I didn’t make a big deal out of it,” he said. “People in New England call me the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving … but I’m not on a crusade. Thanksgivings are a time of celebration and fellowship. … That’s all that really matters.”

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