When did the first Thanksgiving Day take place? Were the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock and survived that brutal winter with the help of the local natives the first to celebrate our nation’s beloved day of gratitude to God in 1621 as we have been taught?
The answer is ‘nope’.
(Image: The First Thanksgiving by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, c. 1914)
For a number of several years now there have been various attempts to correct a popular misconception about American history on who the originators of the first thanksgiving are. History shows it was not the Pilgrims, but the first intrepid explorers who made it through a perilous voyage to the New World.
You may have already heard about some of these ‘First Thanksgiving Contenders’ put forward for consideration by eminent historians:
Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés: A Spanish explorer who landed on shore in Florida, September 8, 1565. He named the new land “St. Augustine” in honour of St. Augustine on whose feast day the land was first sighted, August 28. The native Timucua tribe welcomed the explorers peacefully. The day the explorers came ashore, the Spanish thanked God with a Mass of Thanksgiving, the very first Catholic Mass to be said on what would become North American land, and afterwards enjoyed a feast with the natives. (For more information, read Prof. Michael Gannons work, The Cross in the Sand).
However, research shows that wasn’t the first Thanksgiving.
The French Huguenot (Protestant) explorer René de Goulaine de Laudonnière landed in Florida a year before Menendez de Aviles. The Timucua tribe that would later celebrate with Menendez had welcomed them, causing René to order a feast of Thanksgiving be celebrated to God on June 30, 1564.
Still, that may not be the first Thanksgiving either!
As the Jacksonville Historical Society Website points out:
“Can we conclusively determine that Laudonniere’s 1564 feast is the mother of all American Thanksgivings? Probably not. It must be noted that many prior European explorers offered prayers of thanksgiving upon their safe arrivals in Florida, including Juan Ponce de León in 1513 and 1521, Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528, Hernando de Soto in 1529, Father Luis Cáncer de Barbastro in 1549, and Tristán de Luna in 1559. Also, assuredly, each of these explorers came into contact with native peoples and, most likely, would have had to rely not only on their kindness and goodwill, but also their food.” ( Click here to read their article, "America's Real Thanksgiving".)
True, all these explorers are contenders as having originated the First Thanksgiving, Ponce de Leon’s expedition dated 1513 seems to be the earliest candidate, but I shall now suggest another nominee that apparently has been completely overlooked as far as I can tell: I give you.....drum roll please .....
Christopher Columbus. (Image: posthumous portrait of Columbus by Sebastiano Piombo c. 1520)
What!? Yes, you read that. Christopher Columbus. During his second voyage in 1493, he set foot on what would become a United States territory, Puerto Rico, which was ceded to the US in 1893 by the Spanish government after the Spanish-America War.
‘But how can he have originated that first thanksgiving?’ you are probably thinking. We have no record of a feast day of gratitude celebrated by him on what is now North American soil. True, but I pose another question—does the first American Thanksgiving have to be celebrated directly on American soil to be considered the first Thanksgiving?
Since Christopher Columbus is the first of the European explorers to discover what would one day be called the Americas, (even though he didn’t know it then), his voyage across the sea was the mother of all exploratory voyages to the West. Therefore he is the ‘primordial founding father’ of our American nation in a manner of speaking. In a that sense he is the ‘first American’ of us all. Of importance, he gave thanks, and had every reason to.
I won’t go into long details about his early biography and bore you to death, (you can Google that yourselves!) but I cannot help but mention his dogged determination in seeking patrons to fund his daring expedition to achieve what was once thought impossible.
Contrary to popular misconception, the learned scholars of Columbus’ time had figured out that the world wasn’t flat like a Spanish tortilla, they understood that technically it was possible to sail to the rich lands of the Far East by taking a western route, the problem was no one knew exactly how large the earth was, (or that there were another couple of hitherto unknown continents in the way! Surprise, surprise!) Could an expedition be stocked well enough and last the lengthy voyage in that vast territory of hundreds of thousands of leagues of ocean yet uncharted? In the end the general consensus was that such a voyage may be possible but unfeasible on a practical level.
(Image: The Yale world map by "Henricus Martellus Germanus" (Heinrich Hammer), probably from Florence 1490-92. This is a map of the known world before Columbus' historic voyage: Europe and Africa to the left, the Far East on the right. By then, scholars knew the earth was round, but had no idea how large the 'Ocean Sea', our Atlantic ocean was, and if a westward crossing to Asia was possible.)
However, Columbus not only believed it was possible, but he was fully determined to be prove it could be done. Making extensive studies of historical and geographic texts, both ancient and modern, he made his own calculations on how long a journey to China and India might take, and that is where he encountered many of his difficulties. His league estimations for such a journey were deemed way too short of the theoretical mark proposed by the scholars of his time, and therefore no one wanted to risk their capital funding an already hazardous and uncertain expedition led by someone who seemed not to have the foggiest notion of what they were planning to undertake. This may be a crude comparison, but it is not that different from the latest idea concocted up by idealistic space exploration enthusiasts ~ vis to send a handful of determined citizens volunteers selected by an open application process on a one-way, no-turning-back, lifetime ticket to set up a permanent colony on Mars. In other words, The Mars One Project. True, theoretically it could be done, and if it could be pulled off, it would be a groundbreaking feat for the annuals of history and science, but it also appears quite insane where practical purposes are concerned!
(Image: conceptual art of the Mars-One colony project. Photo credit, Bryan Versteeg.
Well, Columbus was attempting something along the same lines. He did not give up on this dream to sail west and spent years attempting to secure a patron. He first went to King John II of Portugal in 1485, but was refused not only on account of his miscalculations, but also because the King’s explorers were busy attempting the Cape of Good Hope route to Asia around the southern tip of Africa and would not be enticed by the dubious half-baked promise of a ‘West Passage’.
Our persistent would-be explorer next went to Spain where he was fortunate to find influential noble supporters, but his most important followers would prove to be the Franciscan friars at the monastery La Rabida near Palos, especially Brother Juan Pérez, former official of Queen Isabella. Columbus was eventually introduced to the Spanish court in 1486 and a special commission was set up to investigate his proposals, however, the commission took much time deliberating and investigating his calculations. At least he had the Spanish count interested: for a time they were intrigued with his idea, and to prevent him from going to another patron, he was awarded a meagre annual allowance to tide him over. Good boy, stay put. Here’s some pocket money for you.
Yet, rather than sit around as the special committee in Spain dallied, Columbus went to the Portuguese court again with his daring project in 1488, but was turned down. He didn’t give up and travelled to Venice and Genoa, but was refused there too and received no encouragement whatsoever. He even sent his brother Bartholomew Columbus to King Henry VII in England to see if that monarch might be interested in a Western Route to the Indies, that too proved a failure.
Columbus again tried the Court of Spain, and while the committee continued to waste time blowing hot air and weigh in against his voyage, the crown ordered in 1489 that Columbus be given free food and lodgings in any city or town under their domain.
Okay, it was another foot in the door, an indication Spain was not yet out of the picture, even if he was being treated like a ward of the state with no proper job to do! In fact, he wasn’t treated very well, he could barely make ends meet with the allowance he had been granted, following the Spanish court everywhere as a person with no fixed abode, accepting the order of free lodgings granted by the charity of the court. No doubt he took this shabby treatment all in the spirit of a good son of St. Francis of Assisi ~ he was a member of the Third Order after all. In fact, Columbus often appeared before the court dressed in his humble brown robe of the Franciscan order to the point he was mocked for his ragged appearance, and indeed, his sanity was further questioned on account of it!
(Image: The Franciscan Monastery of Rabida. Photo by Miguel Ángel 2007.)
However, he didn’t give up and entered several more years of lobbying and negotiations with the Spanish court despite the negative outlook. When he still wasn’t getting anywhere, he decided to try the French court and set out on foot for France in 1491, stopping by the Franciscan La Rabida monastery where he once again shared his plans with Brother Juan Pérez, before continuing to France. France too turned down his proposals, and we can only imagine the frustration he was feeling by then!
In 1492, Columbus appealed to the Spanish court while it was residing in Cordoba and was rejected—again. If we were with him, by now after all these years we might just advise the poor blighter to give up, he did his best, right? We might tell him to have a nice pity-party for himself, then get on with his life! In fact, he was at the breaking point. Leaving the city on a mule, he was on the brink of despair when lo and behold, he was immediately sent for: the queen had miraculously changed her mind! Some accounts say King Ferdinand had intervened in Queen Isabella’s decision to reject Columbus’ proposal and she agreed to fund the expedition, (the king took credit for the idea, naturally), while in other records the credit of changing the Queen’s decision belongs to Brother Juan Pérez of the Franciscan La Rabida monastery, her former adviser. Apparently, after listening to Columbus’ plans before his journey to France, the good brother decided to make a special appeal to the royal court on Columbus behalf, and was heard.
At last! Success! Gracias a Dios! Thanks be to God!
The dream of finding a direct westward route to the Indies was now within his grasp! When the expedition was finally ready to set sail, Columbus chose a very specific date to depart, August 3rd. Why? Because before he set sail he wanted he and his men to celebrate on August 2nd and give thanks for this great event with those who never gave up on him despite all the obstacles, the Friars and people of Palos. (Info: Juan Manzano y Manzan, Cristóbal Colón).
(Image: bust of Brother Juan Pérez, photo by Miguel Ángel, 2007)
First of all, August the 2nd was and continues to be a very important feast day for the Franciscans, the feast of Our Lady of the Angels, and Columbus was a Third Order Franciscan. It is the anniversary of the dedication of the birthplace of the Franciscan Order and the day of a special Indulgence, the Portiuncula Indulgence. (Click here to read more.) That day in 1492 was certainly an important day of feasting to the brothers and local residents of Palos, especially as Our Lady of the Angels was declared their special Patroness against the perils of the sea fifty years earlier by Pope Eugenius IV. We can only imagine the thanksgiving jubilation on the day before Columbus departed after all the tribulations he went through, and that he wished to celebrate with them. Anyone familiar with Spain could easily guess there would have been a Mass, and a procession with the famous Marian statue of the monastery, the "Virgen de los Milagros" the Virgin of Miracles. There would of course have been feasting. There’s nothing like a fiesta! Columbus then withdrew and spent the entire night in prayer, apparently before the statue of Our Lady of Miracles, preparing for his momentous journey across an ocean never before charted.
(Left: The Portiuncula, Italy. Chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels rebuilt by St. Francis, the birthplace of the Franciscan Order. Right: The statue of Our Lady of Miracles at the Rabida Monastery in Spain. Below: Chapel of La Rabida Monastery, Photo by Marc Ryckaert, 2007)
So, that celebratory day held on August 2, 1492 in Rabida / Palos, the Feast of Our Lady of the Angels, may have been the Mother of All Thanksgivings. It may not have been held on American land, but is nonetheless our first American Thanksgiving ~ if it were not for Columbus’ determination, his venture may never have taken place, and someone else may have been granted the honour of becoming the first founding father of modern America.
Of course, for those who insist that for the ‘First Thanksgiving’ to be recognised as such it should at least have taken place somewhere in the New World, we would have to turn our attention to the day Columbus first set foot on San Salvador in 1492. After weeks of sailing with no sight of land, the men were getting afraid to the point our explorer was facing the prospects of a brutal mutiny. He finally promised that if they did not sight land by the feast day of Our Lady of Pillar, October 12th, he would turn the ships around, and sure enough, on that very day he reached dry land. In thanksgiving, he knelt and said the following prayer:
“O Lord, eternal and omnipotent God, Thou hast, by Thy holy word, created the heavens, the earth, and the sea; blessed and glorified be Thy name; praised be Thy majesty, who hast deigned that, by means of Thy unworthy servant, Thy sacred name should be acknowledged and made known in this new quarter of the world.” (Info: Irving, Washington. A history of the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus. Paris: A. and W. Galignani, 1828. p. 237.)
(Image: Columbus, kneeling, claims the island of San Salvador for Spain.)
The Credo, and the Te Deum praising and thanking God were also said in addition to other multiple prayers of thanksgiving. That counts as a thanksgiving celebration, doesn’t it? Of interest, the first sighting of he New World on the feast of Our Lady of Pillar is also apropos in conjunction with Columbus’ dream and his unrelenting perseverance to achieve it despite all the obstacles.
Circa 40 AD, the Apostle St. James the Greater had embarked on a mission to spread the Gospel to the pagans in what is now recognised as Spain, however, despite all his efforts, he had barely made a few converts and was disheartened by the meagre results. In what is now Zaragoza, Our Lady appeared to him on top of pillar surrounded by Angels with the baby Jesus in Her arms. She encouraged James, telling him that the people of Spain would convert and that their faith would be as strong as the pillar on which she was standing. She gave him the pillar in addition to a wooden statue of her image and requested that a chapel be built on the spot.
(Image: Our Lady of the Pillar, Zaragoza, Spain. The wooden statue sits on the famous jasper pillar draped in a special mantel donated by devotees. The pillar is further covered by a bronze case, also covered by a silver case, seen below the mantel. Our Lady of Pillar has been designated the Patroness of the Hispanic World as her feast day coincides with the discovery of the New World. Photo by Archivaldo, 2007)
Like St. James whose missionary efforts met with disheartening results in the beginning, Columbus faced similar trials. In addition to his dream of discovering a new western passage, records also indicate he was inflamed with missionary zeal and the desire to spread the Gospel to the pagan lands of the Far East. How fitting considering his first name ‘Christopher’ means ‘Christ-Bearer’! Of course, we cannot help but notice a connection between the first thanksgiving feast day of Our Lady of the Angels in Palos and that of Our Lady of Pilar surrounded by Angels. Just after Columbus had been granted funding for his expedition after years of rejections and ridicule, picture him coming to the brink of the ultimate failure in the venture as his men grew afraid and threatened to mutiny, then, to find victory was again right before him on the horizon at the last minute! Prayer and perseverance wins all. We can imagine how heartfelt his Thanksgiving was that day of Our Lady of Pilar when San Salvador was sighted.
In all, if we consider Columbus as having celebrated the two Mother of All Thanksgivings, the Mother of all Mothers was at the heart of them both!
Of course, a time-honoured tradition of looking back on the Pilgrims of future New England as having been the originators of the holiday will not be effaced so easily, especially as it might chagrin a number of people to think that the early thanksgivings of America were predominately Catholic! However, as long as we remember what the holiday is all about, thanking God for the blessings He sends and the graces He has given to help us weather our storms in life, whatever they may be, then we have the right spirit of the holiday, no matter what event we believe is the first of them. We all receive many graces amongst the tribulations of this world, and God expects us to come and thank Him. Remember the Gospel of the ten lepers, when only one returned to thank Him for His mercy. Our Lord said: “Were not ten made clean? And where are the nine? There is no one found to return and give glory to God, but this stranger.” (Luke 17: 17-18)
Thank the Lord for everything, for without Him we have nothing.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
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