Thursday, November 24, 2011

The REAL First Thanksgiving

We here in northeast Florida have known a secret for a long time. That secret came out but with little notice in 1965 when Michael Gannon, Ph.D., wrote The Cross in the Sand, his history of St. Augustine, Florida. That secret has been taken up by newspaper reporters looking for a feature story and then by a fifth-grade teacher in St. Augustine, who in 2007 wrote a children's book about it.

The secret? The first Thanksgiving on the North American continent was not in Massachusetts. My cousin Bill West of West in New England may want to scalp me, but the first Thanksgiving was here in Florida on 8 September 1565, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the oldest continuously-occupied North American settlement - St. Augustine, Florida.

The Spanish role in early American history is largely ignored in American History classes, even here in Florida.  In the fourth grade, we had a slim green-backed book called La Florida which was our Florida history text.  It was not very thorough, and probably not all that accurate, either.  For one thing, it told us that Ponce de León discovered Florida in 1513 while looking for the Fountain of Youth.

Well, let us analyze that . . .

  •  He did not discover Florida.   The Spanish knew it was here, already, because they'd been nosing about in the neighborhood for some 21 years, and had already established themselves all around the Caribbean basin and the Gulf of Mexico.  They just had not bothered to get off their ships and go take a look at it until León did.
  • 1513?  That may depend on whether one is using the modern Gregorian calendar or the Julian calendar.  The Julian calendar would have been in force in 1513, as the Gregorian was not called for until 1582.  In Spain, 1 January was selected as the beginning of the new year in 1556, years before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar.  But as of 1513, the new year may have begun on either 25 December or 25 March, depending on what the Catholic Church had felt like at the time (when most of Western Europe chose one or the other of those dates, during the Middle Ages).   To today's calendars, it could have been 1512 or 1514.
  • He was not looking for the Fountain of Youth.  He probably knew the legend, as most people in Europe were familiar with several legends, such as the voyage of St. Brendan in the 6th century, when he supposedly set sail to westward and found a land of bounty.  Or there was a legend about seven caves, which, when transplanted to the New World, became seven fabulous cities of gold -- Cíbola.  No, not the Fountain of Youth.
Ponce de León had already been governor of Puerto Rico, and had lost that post in a squabble with Diego Colón, son of Cristóbal Colón (whom we know as Christopher Columbus).  He went back to Spain to think of another means to make his mark in the new lands.  He obtained an asiento, or contract, from the king to be the adelantado, or head man with some really neat powers, of Bimini, part of the Bahamas.  But navigation in those days was uncertain at best.  They could calculate latitude with some certainty, maybe an error of plus or minus 5 degrees or so, and some did better than that.  Longitude, however, was not at all accurately computed in those days, and it was not until about the middle of the nineteenth century, really, that they could get an accurate longitude because it was not until then that highly accurate seagoing chronometers (clocks) were available.

So what happened was that Ponce de León's navigator missed Bimini and hit Florida.  So he decided to go ahead and take a look around.

Ponce de León -- yeah, that was his name.

So there is a definite need to bring the early Spanish role in American History to light, and one of those stories was that first giving of thanks for a safe voyage and landing in a strange and promising new world.

So whether you live in Florida, New England, or way out west, Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

(But we did it first.)

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