ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — There is always a Florida connection, and that notion holds true even for Thanksgiving.
About 55 years before English Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, Spanish settlers founded the city of St. Augustine in La Florida. When they came ashore on Sept. 8, 1565, the group celebrated with a Mass of Thanksgiving and then shared a meal with the native Seloy tribe, according to the National Parks Service.
The story of Florida hosting the country's first Thanksgiving meal has been circulating for years and confirmed by local historians, including the late Michael Gannon and Rodney Kite-Powell with the Tampa Bay History Center. Both confirmed it was Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who hosted the first Thanksgiving.
Gannon was actually a priest and historian in 1965 in St. Augustine and oversaw the creation of the Great Cross. The statue is on the site of the first Thanksgiving feast in North America, the Florida Historical Society's Dr. Ben Brotemarkle wrote in 2018.
Kite-Powell echoed the history during a recent episode of The Zest podcast with WUSF. He said about 800 settlers took part in the feast alongside the local tribe. The city's first pastor, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, documented the meal and said the native people imitated the actions of the Spanish settlers.
Kite-Powell also credited Gannon with first uncovering the story of the first Thanksgiving in Florida. When the story was first published in the 1980s, Kite-Powell said some angry readers called Gannon the "Grinch who stole Thanksgiving."
As for what the settlers and Native Americans ate, both historians and the National Park Service agree it wasn't mashed potatoes, stuffing or cranberry sauce.
The first Thanksgiving meal most likely consisted of what the Spanish settlers had left on board their ship, like salted pork, garbanzo beans, hard biscuits and red wine. If the Seloy tribe contributed to the meal, the group might also have had turkey, venison, gopher tortoise, squash and various fish.
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