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Tema: The First Thanksgiving Was Catholic

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    The First Thanksgiving Was Catholic

    The First Thanksgiving Was Catholic

    Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
    I have been asked to comment on Thanksgiving, the national holiday commemorating the first successful harvest season of the grim Protestant pilgrims of New England.

    “It just doesn’t seem right to celebrate the prospering of a Puritan sect that established a Calvinist theocracy in the Massachusetts Colony that would mercilessly persecute Catholics,” one reader argued.

    Such Catholics, gathered around their laden Thanksgiving tables enjoying the company of family and friends, should know a quite consoling fact of American History: the first Thanksgiving on U.S. soil was Catholic.

    The epic journey of the first European colonists to the Southwest

    The American History books we studied as youth pretend that Colonial American History is exclusively what happened in the 13 New England colonies. This ignores an enormous part of reality - our Catholic History. Little attention is paid to the epic northward advance by Spanish pioneers into the southern tier of States reaching from Florida across Texas and New Mexico to California, today called the Spanish Borderlands.

    On January 26, 1598, a Spanish expedition set out from Mexico with the aim of founding a new kingdom. Three months later, after a long, dangerous trek forging a new trail northward, the now famous El Camino Real [The Royal Road], it crossed the Rio Grande and set up camp south of present day El Paso, Texas. On April 30, a Mass of thanksgiving was said, and the valiant leader of the expedition. Don Juan de Oñate, took formal possession of the new land, called New Mexico, in the name of the Heavenly Lord, God Almighty, and the earthly lord King Philip II.

    Then, after the Mass, the Franciscan priests blessed the food on tables abundant with fish, ducks and geese, and the 600-strong expedition of soldiers and colonists feasted. The celebration ended with a play enacting scenes of the native Indians hearing the first words of the Catholic Faith and receiving the Sacrament of Baptism.

    I think that this celebration in El Paso has far more right to be called the first American Thanksgiving than the one celebrated by the Puritans in New England. Actually, the lands in both colonies – New England and New Mexico - were not American at that time. For a short while, New England could claim that theirs was our first thanksgiving feast, but the moment Texas entered the Union as a part of the American federation, this priority of the Puritan celebration can be contested.

    I would assert and defend, therefore, that the Mass, feast, and other celebrations of the Spanish Franciscan missionaries and members of Don Juan de Oñate’s expedition in 1598 is more authentically our first Thanksgiving than that the one in 1621 at Plymouth Rock, which took place 23 years later.

    Who was Don Juan de Oñate?

    Don Juan de Oñate, the Basque leader of the New Mexico expedition, should become a name as familiar as Plymouth founder Captain John Smith or Puritan Governor William Bradford. His exploits, deeds, and spirit are of the sort that inspired the medieval sagas, or today, the epic film.

    Don Juan de Oñate

    Juan de Oñate was from a noble Basque Spanish family that had become wealthy in the New World in silver mining. As a young man, Don Juan had led campaigns at his own expense in service to the Crown to pacify Indians near the northern outposts of Mexico. In his late 30s, he married Isabel de Tolosa, the granddaughter of the conquistador Fernando Cortes and Isabel Montezuma, the offspring of the late Aztec emperor.

    In 1595 Oñate was chosen by King Philip II to colonize and explore the provinces of the proposed kingdom of New Mexico. The terms of the arrangement sound quite unusual to modern ears. Don Oñate agreed to equip and arm at his personal expense 200 men to serve as soldiers as well as provide for their families and servants, to a total of 500-600 persons. He had to purchase sufficient food, clothing and supplies for the trek north as well as during the period of building the first houses. He also pledged to bring mining and blacksmithing tools, medicine, Indian trade goods, seeds, plows, and all the other necessities.

    In short, he completely subsidized the expenses of a dangerous, uncertain expedition that could easily end in failure.

    Why did he bother to undertake such a venture? He already had a position of prestige and power in New Spain; he was wealthy, with the potential to become even richer in silver mining had he remained where he was. Instead, he contracted to take on the momentous expenses of equipping and maintaining an expedition of some 600 people and set out on an uncertain, dangerous, and difficult march into an unknown, hostile terrain.

    Priests and friars were present on every colonial Spanish expedition at the expense of the Crown

    Why did he go? He went for the adventure, to undertake a grand enterprise first, for the glory of God and King, and second, for his personal prestige.

    First, from his detailed record book, it is clear that Don Oñate went for God; his notes show a true desire to expand the boundaries of the religion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He marched under a personal standard of white silk stamped on one side with pictures of Our Lady and St. John the Baptist, Oñate’s patron saint; on the reverse side was St. James on horseback carrying a sword.

    The Spanish monarchy made the defense and propagation of the Catholic Faith the supreme aim of the State. In the instructions given to Oñate, the Crown clearly stated the primary goal of the expedition was to initiate conversion of the “many large settlements of heathen Indians who live in ignorance of God and our Holy Catholic Faith … so that they might have an orderly and decent Christian life.”

    Only one expense of the expedition did the Crown assume: The King provided the Patronato Real, the Royal Patronage, agreeing to pay the expenses of the 10 priests and friars, who accompanied the group both to minister to the men and convert natives. It is a clear demonstration of the great importance the Crown gave to the missionary effort.

    Juan de Oñate sets forth under authority of Cross and Crown - Statue by by Reynaldo Rivera

    Second, Oñate went for his prestige. In return for bearing the expenses of the expedition, he was promised the title of Governor, as well as the supreme military rank of Captain-General with civil and criminal jurisdiction over the Kingdom of New Mexico. These titles were granted for life with privilege of passing them on to his heirs. The Crown also agreed to award all Oñate’s men by making them nobles, hidalgos, after five years residence in New Mexico.

    So, Don Oñate and his expedition went forth in January of 1598, under the symbol of Cross and the authority of the Crown. It has been said that the Middle Ages drew its last breath in these captains and conquistadors of the New World. I think that it is very true.

    Certainly, the aims, spirit, attitudes and religion of the Spanish explorers could not have been more different from those of the Puritans who, motivated by self-interest, landed at Plymouth Rock to make a small, comfortable life for themselves and their families, with no thought of the spiritual welfare of the Indians, no dreams of heroism, glory or fame. This clear difference in spirit and mentality makes the colonial Catholic Spaniards a better model for Americans than the Puritans.

    The expedition through the desert

    After three long years of extremely costly delays, Don Oñate, age 43, set out from Santa Barbara, the most northern Spanish outpost in Mexico, on January 26, 1598. He aimed to establish a short, direct route due northward through 200 miles of Chihuahuan desert, a trail would later become part of the famous El Camino Real. The sprawling train he led was reported to spread out for three miles in length. It was a formidable sight: some 500-600 men, 175 of them soldiers, many of them in armor, 83 ox-carts, 26 wagons and carriages, and over 7,000 head of livestock.

    In January 1598 the expedition left the last Spanish outpost of Santa Barbara and headed due north to the Rio Grande.
    Above, El Camino Real

    The first significant obstacle Don Oñate faced was not the desert, but the unseasonable high waters of the Conchos River, making a crossing appear impossible. Don Oñate refused to halt or turn back. Instead, he made a rallying call:

    “Come, noble soldiers, knights of Christ, here is presented the first opportunity for you to show your mettle and courage to prove that you are deserving of the glories in store for you.”

    Then he ordered up his horse and without pause plunged into the foaming torrent and reached shore. His exploit set the example, and the crossing was made. Only the sheep were left behind on the south bank, unable to swim because the weight of their wool when soaked with water would pull them under. Don Juan ordered the wooden wheels removed from the carts, anchored them in pairs to rafts, and strung them in a line over the water. The bleating sheep crossed the Conchos on them, and the expedition continued.

    By early March, Oñate’s expedition had reached the treacherous Chihuahuan Desert. Some days into the desert journey, they were desperately in need of water. Unexpectedly they came to a small stream, which they named the Rio Sacramento because it was found on Holy Thursday, the feast of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament.

    The next day, Don Oñate ordered a halt and a temporary chapel was erected for Easter Mass. They named the site Encinar de la Resurrección, Place of the Resurrection. The men passed the night in penance and prayer; Don Oñate also bared his back to take the discipline in atonement of sins, a common practice among the Spanish faithful during Holy Week.

    The long march continued, and water grew scarcer. On April 1, after a night long vigil of prayer, Don Oñate made this entry in his log book: “God succored us with a downpour so heavy that very large pools formed …. Therefore we name this place Socorro del Cielo [Aid from Heaven].”

    Colonists on El Camino Real

    This was how the journey progressed. At every crucial moment, an aid from Heaven came. For the soldiers and colonists, those aids were miracles from God who was blessing their venture. To pay Him some small thanks, they gave the streams that they found, the sites where they rested, holy names that glorified God and His Saints.

    Finally, on April 21, 1598, the exhausted expedition reached the banks of the Rio Grande. For the last five days of the march, the expedition had run out of both food and water, and the colonists had suffered a mind-numbing thirst. Don Oñate, seeing the extreme fatigue on the faces of the people, proclaimed a week’s rest on the river bank as scouts searched for a suitable place to ford the river and cross into New Mexico, what is the present-day El Paso, Texas.

    Taking possession and the first Thanksgiving

    Oñate ordered a temporary church to be constructed with a nave large enough to hold the entire camp. Under those boughs, on April 30, 1598, the feast day of the Ascension of Our Lord, the Te Deum was sung and the Franciscans celebrated a solemn high Mass, the first Thanksgiving celebration in our lands.

    The moment had arrived for La Toma, the formal ceremony of taking possession of new land, a ritual that was both secular and religious in nature. It was a triumphant moment for Don Oñate and his Spanish priests, soldiers and colonists who had suffered much and seen their expedition often at the point of perishing. The Army drew up in formation on horseback, each man in polished armor. Don Oñate stepped forward to read the official proclamation:
    “In the name of the most Holy Trinity … I take possession of this whole land this April 30, 1598, in honor of Our Lord Jesus Christ, on this day of the Ascension of Our Lord ….”

    Each year, participants in El Paso re-enact the Oñate expedition’s first Thanksgiving

    To the fanfare of trumpets and volleys of musket shots, Oñate signed and sealed the official act with a flourish, and the Holy Cross and the royal standard were both raised in the camp, completing the legal requirements of La Toma. With that, the kingdom of New Mexico came into being, at midday on April 30, 1598.

    The colonists went on to celebrate the first Thanksgiving with a grand feast of fish, “many cranes, ducks and geese.” The rest of the day passed with song, foot races, and other competitive games. In the evening, all enjoyed a play, written by one of Oñate’s captains, Marcos Farfan, which enacted happy scenes of the Franciscan missionaries entering the country, the Indians kneeling to receive them and asking to be received into the Holy Faith.

    This is the description of that glorious festivity which represents, I am convinced, the plan of God for those lands that today comprise our country.

    Since the last Thursday of November is a random date to commemorate Thanksgiving, I propose that Catholics commemorate on this day the conquest of Don Oñate and the Franciscan priests, rather than that bitter harvest of the Puritans. I am sure that this will glorify Our Lord Jesus Christ and gain his blessing for our future.

    The content of this article is based upon these sources:

    Adams, Don and Kendrick, Teresa A., Don Juan de Oñate and the First Thanksgiving,
    Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990

    Mattox, Jake, ed., Explorers of the New World, Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2004.

    Simmons, Marc, The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

    The First American Thanksgiving was Catholic by Marian T. Horvat

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    Re: The First Thanksgiving Was Catholic

    The Real First Thanksgiving in America Was Catholic, Heroic…and Not Near Plymouth Rock

    November 24, 2021 | Domenick Galatolo

    The Real First Thanksgiving in America Was Catholic, Heroic…and Not Near Plymouth Rock

    Over fifty years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Catholics held the first Thanksgiving in America.

    On September 8, 1565, the feast of Our Lady’s Nativity, Spanish Catholics sat down for their first Thanksgiving dinner in the colonial town of St. Augustine, Florida. Three things marked this event: a Catholic hero, a Mass, and a battle.

    Both the year and the century were chaotic at the time. Under King Philip II, Spain was the bulwark defending Christian civilization. Phillip II had two pieces of news that concerned him greatly. The Mohamedans had just besieged the tiny island stronghold of Malta garrisoned by the Knights of Saint John. The other piece of news was that French Huguenot pirates had landed in Spanish Florida. They were attacking Spanish vessels and perverting the natives to their sect. Something had to be done.

    A Catholic Hero

    Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the greatest sea captain of his day.

    Phillip needed someone to root out the Huguenots, settle Florida and bring the pagan natives to the Catholic fold. Enter Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the greatest sea captain of his day. The king summoned Menendez to lead this expedition and plant the Faith in America. The stalwart Menendez accepted this mission and put his whole soul into the expedition. He financed it and even suffered bankruptcy as a result.

    He gathered his fleet and set forth. Out of over thirty vessels, only six made it to Puerto Rico because of a hurricane. The French now outnumbered him. He conferred with his remaining captains. Some wanted to turn back. Others wanted to wait for promised reinforcements. However, Menendez wanted the greater glory of God. He told his men that although all seemed against them, God was on their side. Since this was a mission for the king and God, he said they must go forward.

    He threw caution to the wind and put his confidence in God and Our Lady.

    A Battle of Faith

    On August 28, 1565, the feast of St. Augustine, Menendez sighted land. He immediately sought the Huguenot stronghold of Fort Caroline. A few days later, he sighted four warships (all larger than his own) just off the coast of what is now Jacksonville, Florida.

    Again he held a conference with his captains, who begged Menendez to turn back. Menendez reminded them that this mission was not for self-glory but God. He also noted that their ships could never outrun the French, who were already making their way towards them. The only solution was to go straight at them, which they did.

    Menendez sailed toward the French all evening and only reached them around midnight. He ordered his men to the guns. Menendez hailed the French ship and inquired who they were. The French responded that they were Huguenots sent by Gaspar de Coligny (the political leader of the Huguenots in France). Pedro Menendez responded by telling them his name and his reason for coming: to hang all heretics he found and plant the Church’s standard in Florida.

    The Huguenots responded by blaspheming while Menendez fired a broadside at the French, who fled after a quick skirmish. Only the next morning did Menendez realize how dire his position was. Several land batteries were pointed at him, and other French ships (excluding the four he had put to flight) lay in the harbor.

    The First Thanksgiving

    Menendez prudently headed south to find a safe harbor and plant his standard. On September 8, 1565, he landed on the feast of Our Lady’s nativity at a safe harbor which he named St. Augustine, now the city with the same name. His first actions were to plant the Cross and the standard of Catholic Spain. He claimed the land in the name of God.

    All present, including the curious natives, adored and kissed the Cross. Then the first official Mass was celebrated in what is now the United States.

    Menendez was quick to make friends with the native population. To celebrate the landing, the natives brought out all sorts of food. Together the Spanish Catholics and Florida Indians held a great banquet of thanksgiving in honor of the birth of the Mother of God. Indeed, it can be said that this was the first Thanksgiving on American soil.

    A Catholic Victory

    However, the Huguenots, who outnumbered the Catholics, were still prowling around the area. Menendez acted quickly by unloading his supplies and sending his ships to Cuba for reinforcements. Soon afterward, the French who appeared were at the mouth of the harbor. The low tide kept the French at bay for several hours. However, the odds were against Menendez, and all seemed lost. Since it was the feast of the Holy Spirit, Menendez prayed for guidance. Almost immediately, a storm broke the tranquility of the day. A great gale then pushed the French ships south and eventually shipwrecked them all (unbeknownst to Menendez).

    Menendez saw the hand of God in his deliverance. He led his men in prayers of thanksgiving and lost no time by asking for five hundred volunteers to attack the fort to the north. Since most Huguenots had manned the ships, the fort was left with few troops to defend it.

    A friendly Indian led Menendez and his men through the Florida swamps in chest-high water in the middle of a hurricane. Three days later, four hundred of the five hundred volunteers arrived near the fort. With the cry of “Santiago (Saint James) and at them,” Menendez led the charge and scaled the walls in the downpour. The French were caught entirely off-guard as only twenty escaped. As Menendez reentered St. Augustine, the remaining Spaniards met them with the singing of the Te Deum hymn of thanksgiving.

    Soon some natives brought the news that the shipwrecked Huguenots were stranded onshore just south of St. Augustine. Menendez led fifty men to what is now Matanzas inlet. He soundly defeated more than five hundred Huguenots led by Jean Ribault in two separate engagements. Thus the path was open for planting the Holy Catholic Faith in America.

    Confidence in God and Our Lady

    The rest of the story of the Menendez expedition is full of heroism, conversion and suffering. This Catholic history of America is unfortunately hidden. The account of the real first Thanksgiving is almost unknown. The Catholic founding of America under Pedro Menendez de Aviles highlights the practice of the virtues of confidence and intransigence. Without these two virtues, the Catholics would have turned back, and the course of history changed. However, they placed trust in God and the Blessed Virgin Mary. God supplied them with victory, and they gave glory and honor to Him by giving thanks in St. Augustine, Florida, on September 8, 1565.


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    Re: The First Thanksgiving Was Catholic

    Reality & Myth regarding Thanksgiving

    Marian T. Horvat. Ph.D.

    Thanksgiving as we know it today bears little resemblance to the supposed “first Thanksgiving” in 1621 at Plymouth. The festival with its deep Protestant roots is one shaped by myths, not real history, unlike Catholic feast days and Holy Days, firmly grounded in the events of the lives of Our Lord, Our Lady and the Saints.

    In fact, until the 19th century, Thanksgiving was strictly a Puritan event, without any influence on the rest of the American people, commemorated as a harvest day ‘fast and thanksgiving’ ceremony. Further, that “day” was celebrated spottily only in the New England States, in some regions and not others, and never on a fixed date.

    This idyllic first Thanksgiving painted in the early 20th century is a fable, not reality

    Some celebrated it as early as October, others as late as January. And some years in its earliest history, if the harvest was not good or the weather inclement, it was simply ignored. To fix an annual commemoratory feast, well, that would have just been too Catholic for Puritan tastes.

    Now, here is the really surprising data: Until the mid-19th century, the event of a feast shared by the first Puritans with the Wampanoag Indians in October of 1621 was completely unknown.

    It was a New Hampshire Episcopalian woman, Sarah Hale, editor of the popularGodey’s Lady’s Magazine, who came across a Puritain diary revealing the existence of the gathering of Pilgrims and Indians in 1621. She thought to take advantage of that forgotten commemoration in order to shape it into an “American” feast day.

    In 1845, she launched her “crusade” to make a Thanksgiving national feast, stumping relentlessly for the festival in her popular and influential magazine and barnstorming politicians, preachers and presidents. In Godey’s pages, the Pilgrims with their buckled hats, the feathered-banded Indians, and the turkey and pumpkin made their first appearance, along with sentimental short stories trumpeting New England Protestant values of simplicity, economy and patriotism.

    A Victorian age depiction of the Thanksgiving devised by Sarah Hale

    Sarah Hale was finally successful when Lincoln established Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 as one means to help mend the broken North and South relationship. It would be a national holiday of food and family values whose central point would be a meal and not religious covenant.

    Instead of being turned toward heaven, in fact, the day’s focus became home, family and nation, that is, America in its “providential role” as republic builder, America as the melting pot that took in all peoples and integrated them into the democratic ideal. Hale envisioned Thanksgiving as one way to bring Americans together much the same way that Protestant women later promoted the Pledge of Allegiance to foster patriotism and national unity, which is another story.

    Lincoln also established its official date as the final Thursday in November. Needless to say, the South was loathe to adopt any law coming from the hated Lincoln, and it would take many years for the holiday to achieve its goal or begin to resemble the distinctly American secular holiday we know today.

    Immigrant Catholics, who still observed the Catholic feasts and holydays, were also reluctant to embrace this strictly secular feast, which they considered Protestant. It was Cardinal of Baltimore James Gibbons (1834-1921), the great champion of Americanism and religious liberty, who was the first Prelate to make public efforts to integrate Catholics into the Protestant festival.

    In 1888, he published in his archdiocesan paper a circular where he called on his priests to recite this ecumenical prayer at the close of Mass on Thanksgiving Day directing its observance: “The faithful of the Archdiocese having in common with our fellow citizens, deep cause for gratitude to the Giver of every good and perfect gift, will, we feel confident, be equally desirous of evincing their spirit of thanksgiving.”

    A 1869 illustration by Thomas Nast displays the new ideal: a table around which all Americans sit

    This won him points with the New York Herald, who praised him highly for the act, and with President Cleveland. But, if the Cardinal’s gesture won him admiration from Protestant quarters, it met with strong protest from many fellow Prelates, especially those in the South. Bishop Benjamin J. Keiley of Savannah (GA), complained publicly that Gibbons had “out-heroded Herod” by inducing Catholics to recognize “the damnably Puritanical substitute for Christmas.” (1)

    It would take many years – after the more generalized secularization and commercialization of Thanksgiving that occurred in the post World War I era – before Catholics as a body would accept the secular holiday. The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia makes this revealing remark: “Catholic recognition of the day by special religious features has only been of comparatively recent date and not as yet of official general custom.”

    The Pilgrims’ fast and thanksgiving day

    So, what is the real history of the real “first thanksgiving”? Summarizing, it could hardly be more different from the story of Pilgrims and Indians meeting in ecumenical joy at a feast of fellowship, the fable we know today.

    The Plymouth Pilgrims followed their English counterparts who despised the many Catholic holydays and feast days. But they went a step further, thinking the Church of England beyond reform because it was still too Roman. According to them, all these Popish inventions involved too much ceremony, too much celebration and were unsupported by Scriptures.

    So, the Puritans reduced the holydays and feast days to one: the Sabbath. These first Pilgrims, who landed on American soil, hated holydays and festivity so much that they even abolished Christmas and Easter.

    A custom developed among the Pilgrims, however, that of declaring special days of thanksgiving in response to God’s providence. The day of thanksgiving was preceded by a day of fast. The majority of the second day was spent in their temple houses praying, singing and Scripture reading. Feasting played little and often no role in the early Pilgrim thanksgivings.

    Norman Rockwell portrays the familiar Thanksgiving accepted by all Americans by the mid-20th century

    The Massachusetts Pilgrims of Plymouth did not view the 1621 feast celebrated between the Wampanoag Indians and the Pilgrims as a “first Thanksgiving;” they certainly had no intention of inaugurating an annual holiday. This “fast and thanksgiving day” that Governor Bradford called to commemorate the year’s good harvest was, like all others, to note the passing of one providential moment, the good harvest of that particular autumn.

    When George Washington issued an ad hoc proclamation of a national day of thanksgiving, he did so in the Calvinist spirit. The Continental Congress proclaimed November 1, 1777, as a nationwide day for fasting, prayer and thanksgiving for the English defeat at Saratoga that ensured a French alliance with the newly born Republic. John Adams and James Madison issued similar proclamations for other “providential” events.

    The Thanksgiving we know today was invented and reinvented several times, but has little to do in fact with those original Pilgrims, Indians or turkey dinner.

    In my opinion, knowing the history of Thanksgiving strengthens the argument for celebrating the Catholic thanksgivings of St. Augustine, Florida and El Paso, Texas. It makes more sense for Catholics to honor the first Masses said on Catholic soil than the original Protestant fast and thanksgiving day that commemorated the Pilgrim’s “covenant with the Lord.”

    Still we can commemorate it on the fourth Thursday of November, or any other day, joining together with family and friends to thank God for our Catholic past and ask him to take up again the original plan for our Nation that it may rightly celebrate the Reign of Christ and Our Lady in all its festivals and actions.

    1. John Tracy Elliot, The Life of James Cardinal Gibbons, Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, vol. II, pp. 5-6.

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    Re: The First Thanksgiving Was Catholic

    Libros antiguos y de colección en IberLibro
    Our Oldest City and First Thanksgiving

    Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
    I am glad to acknowledge a note that a reader from Florida sent me bringing to my attention the fact that the first thanksgiving in the territory that today is the United States was not the one I featured in an article on this website several years ago. It actually took place in Florida five years before.

    Thus, the first American Thanksgiving was neither at Plymouth Rock in 1621 nor in Texas on April 20, 1568 when Don Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande and took formal possession of present day El Paso. This honor belongs to the city of St. Augustine, Florida, the first and oldest city of our present day United States. The landing of Captain General Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his fleet of soldiers and colonists – accompanied by priests – on the coast of Florida on September 8, 1565 has all the qualification to count it as the first official Thanksgiving Day in our country:

    The land was claimed for Spain and
    a Mass of thanksgiving was said
    • It was the first permanent European settlement in North America. There had been other attempts by the Spanish to establish colonies in Florida and Texas, but all were short-lived.

    • In an official ceremony Don Pedro Menendez came ashore amid the sounding of trumpets, artillery salutes and the firing of cannons to claim the land for King Philip II and Spain. One of the priests, Fr. Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, who had gone ashore the previous day, advanced to meet him, chanting the Te Deum Laudamus and carrying a cross which Menendez and those with him reverently kissed. Then the 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 families and artisans, along with the Timucuan Indians from the nearby village of Seloy, gathered at a makeshift altar, and a Mass in honor of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary was said.

    • The Mass was followed by a feast shared by the Spanish and the Timucuan Indians. The Timucuans brought wild turkey, venison, oysters and giant clams, as well as maize, beans, squash, nuts and fruits. The Spaniards contribution was cocido, a stew made with pork, garbanzo beans and onions, along with biscuits, olive oil and red wine.

    In his well-researched book on the State of Florida titled Cross in the Sand, Dr. Michael Gannon duly affirmed that this Mass and feast was “the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent European settlement in the land.” (1) Properly speaking, the history books should acknowledge this feast as the first Thanksgiving. But, as the saying goes, the victors write the history. So, for many years, the textbooks only placed emphasis on the English settlement in Plymouth, ignoring the fact that the Spanish were here long before them.

    I believe two positive factors are beginning to change that picture. First, many traditional Catholics – like most of the readers of this website – are interested in learning more about their Catholic roots in America, and want to know disregarded episodes like this one. Second, the growing Hispanic population in our country – and particularly the States of Florida, Texas and the Southwest – is sparking interest in the nation's Spanish heritage.

    An annual reenactment of the founding of St. Augustine includes the thanksgiving feast
    In St. Augustine, for example, the city's founding is being celebrated each year with speeches and pageantry, starting with the historical re-enactment of Don Pedro Menendez’ landing and the Mass at the Mission Nombre de Dios. Don Menendez gave this beautiful name to the landing site, and today it is the oldest mission in the United States. In 1965 a 200-foot-high-cross was erected on the Mission at the exact site of the city’s founding. There is even a First Thanksgiving Cooking Contest that is held to reproduce the food and drink that would have been served at the original feast.

    Local celebrations like these are helping to make the people of Florida aware of St. Augustine’s rich past - which includes a Catholic Thanksgiving that long preceded the one celebrated by the Puritans.

    The Huguenot threat

    After Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the peninsula in 1513, named it La Florida (covered with flowers) and claimed it for Spain, the Spanish Crown made six attempts to establish a mission colony there. None were successful. Fierce storms at sea, starvation, hostile Indians and every genre of misfortune ended each expedition in failure.

    Today a 200-foot high cross marks the landing site at Nombre de Dios Mission
    Discouraged by those vain attempts, in 1561 Philip II decided that no further attempt should be made to colonize the eastern coast. That decision changed abruptly, however, with a French intrusion of Huguenots who established the small colony of Fort Caroline in present day Jacksonville.

    This was a time of violent religious wars between the Huguenots and Catholics in France, with the Spanish Crown supporting the Catholics. The chief of the Huguenot faction was Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who was looking for a colony in the New World to have a secure place to send his fellow-Protestants persecuted in France. In 1555, he had organized an expedition of 500 colonists who landed in Brazil on an island in the Rio de Janeiro bay. Their fort, however, was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1560. The Huguenots remained in Rio for some time until 1567, when they were definitively expelled in a battle with the Portuguese navy.

    After this first defeat in Brazil, Coligny turned his eyes toward the coastline of peninsular Florida. In 1564 he sent out another expedition of Huguenot soldiers and settlers to establish an outpost called Fort Caroline. The French colony there represented a serious threat to Spanish shipping and the safety of the Indies. Not only would Spanish ships traveling with gold from the New World to the Old through the Bahama Channel be exposed to seizure by the French, but even the coastal towns could be attacked at any time. Further, the Catholic Spanish King wanted to avoid heresy spreading in the New World.

    When news leaked to the Spanish court that a French fleet led by the sea Captain Jean Ribault was setting out to reinforce the struggling colony with ships, arms and food, Philip II’s reaction was swift. This was foreign encroachment on Spain’s claims in Florida – recognized in a 1559 Treaty with France. A Spanish fleet must be dispatched to stop Jean Ribault, destroy Fort Caroline, secure Florida for Spain and finally establish a permanent Catholic community along the coast of Florida.

    The Menendez expedition

    A portrait of Pedro Menendez Aviles
    The man to whom Philip entrusted the task of driving the French out of Florida had both the experience and strong will needed to accomplish the mission. He was Don Pedro Menendez de Avilés, one of 20 children of an ancient family of the Asturias. As Captain General of the Indies Fleet, he was well acquainted with the routes to New Spain and realized the danger of having French so near the Bahama Channel that Spanish fleets regularly crossed. As a Catholic, he abhorred the prospective that the Huguenots might spread their infectious doctrine among Florida’s Indians in the New World.

    After a failed attempt to cross the sea because of bad weather, Menendez set sail from Puerto Rico for La Florida with five vessels and 800 soldiers, artisans and settlers, and four secular priests on August 5, 1565. His flagship bore the proud name San Pelayo, a tribute to the warrior who started the Reconquista in Spain.

    Thirty-four days later, under his command the Catholic colony of St. Augustine was founded – so named because land was sighted on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine. On September 20, Menendez and 500 of his soldiers marched on Fort Caroline, captured it and renamed it San Mateo – St. Matthew. (2)

    That month, Menendez sent a letter to the King reporting the progress of the expedition. After dealing with practical matters, he affirmed his content to see the Holy Faith established in the new land: “Let Your Majesty rest assured that if I had a million more, I would spend it all upon this undertaking, because it is of such great service to God Our Lord, and for the increase of our Holy Catholic Faith and the service of Your Majesty. And therefore I have offered to Our Lord, that all that I shall find, win and acquire, in this world shall be for the planting of the Gospel in this land, and the enlightenment of its natives, and thus I pledge myself to Your Majesty."(3)

    Once again, Admiral Coligny’s plan to establish a haven for the French Huguenots had failed. Instead of becoming the refuge for the 40,000 French Huguenots that France wanted to rid herself of, (4) Florida became Catholic. Around its corner was the Age of the Missions that would only end a century later in 1675.
    1. Cross in the Sand, University of Florida, 1993, 3rd ed., pp. 26-27
    2. For a detailed account of the Fort Caroline battle and the capture and killing of Jean Ribault and his French soldiers who were stranded after their ships were wrecked in a storm, see Gannon’s, The Cross in the Sand, pp. 22-28.
    3. Woodbury Lowery, The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United States Florida, 1562-1574, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1911, pp. 161-162.
    4. "Queen Catherine de Medici expressed herself on this subject to her ambassador to Spain, Fourquevaux, in a letter where she wrote, 'I wish all the Huguenots were in that country [America] over there.' The Spanish ambassador in Vienna, who apparently knew of Admiral Coligny’s plan to send a number of Huguenots to Florida, estimated the number of Protestants in France of which 'the country should be discharged' at more than 40,000 men." Henry D. Folmer, Franco-Spanish Rivalry in North America, 1524-1763, Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark, 1953, pp. 88-89.

    A scene from Old St. Augustine in the 1700s

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