Nov 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The Thanksgivings before the Pilgrims

Illustration of a painting of a Massachusetts Thanksgiving peeled back to show the portrait of Spanish conquistador, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Images: Library of Congress, Wikipedia

The U.S. celebrates Thanksgiving to commemorate the 1621 feast between 91 Wampanoag members and 53 Pilgrims in present-day Massachusetts. But there were other similar feasts years before the Pilgrims landed, between early Spanish settlers and Indigenous people in what is now the U.S.

Why it matters: The earlier feasts highlight the often-overlooked early Hispanic roots in U.S. history.

The details: On September 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers founded the city of St. Augustine in Spanish La Florida.

  • The landing party celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving after landing safely ashore and invited the Seloy tribe who lived at the site.
  • St. Augustine’s first pastor, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, celebrated the Mass — the first community act of Christian religion and Thanksgiving in the first permanent European settlement in North America, according to the U.S. National Park Service.

The intrigue: In 1598, Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate led an expedition of 500 people, including soldiers, families and 7,000 head of livestock through the harsh Chihuahua desert in northern Mexico.

  • After a treacherous 50 days of thirst and hunger, the expedition arrived at present-day El Paso, Texas, where they found the Rio Grande, a needed source for water.
  • Oñate ordered a day of thanksgiving on April 30, 1598, for the survival of the expedition after 10 days of recuperating from their near-death experience. It marked the beginning of the Spanish arrival in the American Southwest.
  • Today, people in El Paso honor the 1598 event as the region's first Thanksgiving.

Between the lines: Both events place the ancestors of U.S. Latinos in the narrative of early American history that predates the arrival of English colonists in New England and Virginia.

Yes, but: Those events also show that early Spanish settlers were encroaching on Indigenous land.

  • In recent years, Indigenous and Latino activists have questioned the romanticized stories about Spanish settlers to focus on the violence and suffering endured by Indigenous people in the American Southwest at the hands of the Spaniards.
  • Their findings echo the brutality of the early English settlers on the East Coast.

Don't forget: In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln established the last Thursday in November as a National Day of Thanksgiving, as the nation was engulfed in the U.S. Civil War over slavery.

  • The two Spanish thanksgivings have largely been forgotten.

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