Service: “First Thanksgiving” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Click here to start at the sermon.
The Thanksgiving of our country’s popular imagination is a deeply Protestant holiday. The New England pilgrims came to the Americas because of their dissent from the state church of England. They may have owed their lives to the assistance of indigenous people, but their celebration owed nothing to native forms of spirituality, nor to any Catholic influence, which they would have repudiated as “papist.” It was mainline Protestant political leaders who established it as a national holiday.
But of course, as is usually the case with this kind of historical meme, the reality is more complicated. The colonial New England Thanksgiving was always, even in its first instance, a military proposition. The feast that we remember through the haze of traditional sentiment, was a mutual exhibition of arms and power between the British new arrivals and the indigenous Wampanoag, as they negotiated a relationship and each explored how the other might be useful as an ally. All subsequent iterations of Thanksgiving proclamations up to the time of independence, had to do with theft from and slaughter of indigenous tribes, as the colonists realized and leveraged the advantages of gunpowder technology, in the untroubled conviction that they were doing God’s will.
I would argue that since gratitude is, in fact, a sentiment worthy to be cultivated, we might do well to look elsewhere for some alternative possibilities in our history. In fact, we might turn our eyes south along the eastern seaboard, to what was arguably the real ‘first Thanksgiving’ by Europeans in the new world, in the Spanish colony of La Florida. Although it was theoretically claimed as Spanish territory by the conquistador and explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513, the initial attempt to establish a colony of immigrants on the coast was repulsed by the indigenous Calousa people in 1521, and Ponce de Leon died in the attempt. It was not until 30 years later that the rather brilliant Spanish admiral, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, was assigned by the king to command the first organized treasure fleet bringing trade goods and precious metals from Mexico and the Caribbean back to Spain. Menendez de Aviles succeeded in this assignment, which was daunting not only by virtue of weather and the limited technology of navigation, but also by the presence of Dutch and English pirates, who would gladly have seized some or all of the treasure ships on behalf of their own nations. He did lose one of the smaller ships in the flotilla – the one commanded by his son – off the coast of La Florida. Immediately upon delivering the convoy safely to port in Seville, Menendez de Aviles began pestering the crown for permission to return to the new world and undertake a search for his son. King Phillip II was not interested in risking his best admiral for such a project, until five years later, when he learned that the French were working to establish a defensive outpost and a colony of Hugenot Protestants in La Florida. In 1565 he granted Menendez de Aviles’ request, provided that he also undertook to eliminate the French challenge at Fort Caroline, on the St. Johns river, near present day Jacksonville. Menedez de Aviles and his crew sailed, sighted land on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo, and called the place they later landed St. Augustin. On September 8, they held a Catholic mass to offer thanks for their safe arrival, attended by the crew and a group of curious Timucua natives, which was followed by a shared potluck meal of leftover ships stores. This probably included a stew made from salted pork and dried garbanzo beans, laced with garlic seasoning and accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. The Timucua, as invited guests, would have also provided food for the meal – likely local game and fish, including oysters and smoked alligator, along with grains, corn, beans, squash, and berries.
Luck and brutality enabled Menendez de Aviles to destroy the French fort, execute the majority of its inhabitants, and initiate the first successful European settlement on the east coast of what is now the United States. The river inlet where the bloodiest part of this encounter took place is known to this day as Matanzas Bay, a Spanish word which means ‘slaughter’. Much as happened half a century later in Plymouth colony, what started as cautiously friendly relations with the indigenous tribal groups quickly deteriorated, as each side discovered that the other was an undependable ally in war, and the natives began to die from exposure to unfamiliar diseases and to understand the Europeans’ expectation to dominate and even enslave them.
I tell you this story because religion, and slavery, are important reasons why we celebrate the image of the first Thanksgiving that dominates our cultural imagination, featuring the Congregationalists in their whitewashed meeting house rather than the Catholics offering mass in the sand and munching smoked alligator. La Florida remained a Spanish colony well past the revolution against the British crown – in fact, until 1821. This was significant because the Catholic Spanish government had a different conception of slavery than the British chattel system. Under the Spanish government, enslaved people had certain rights, including the ability to own money or property, to buy their freedom at established rates, and to bring suit in a court of law. They were also understood to have souls. Moreover, one of the appeals offered by their many missionary outreaches was the theory that no baptized Catholic could rightfully enslave another; thus, as soon as the indigenous people were baptized into the faith, they became ineligible for formal slavery under Spanish law. This is not to suggest that actual racial justice or harmony prevailed, but it was a different way of looking at the matter than the English colonists had.
In 1693, King Charles II of Spain issued an edict which specifically stated that any male slave from an English plantation who escaped to Spanish Florida would be granted freedom, provided he joined the Militia and became a Catholic. This edict became one of the New World’s earliest emancipation proclamations. It codified what had been the practice of more than a century, as the expanding plantation system in the Carolinas and Georgia brought increasing numbers of kidnapped Africans within running distance of the Spanish administration to the south. To the great annoyance of governors in the slave holding colonies, La Florida developed a flourishing community of free blacks, who became craftspeople, merchants, and land owners, and who welcomed and protected runaway slaves. In the early 1700s, bands of native people from the Yamasee, Creek, and Seminole confederacies were driven out of their original lands in what is now Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas; some of them resettled in La Florida, where they mixed and intermarried with both European colonists and formerly enslaved Africans. While Spanish authorities gave northern slave catchers neither assistance nor encouragement, they could not entirely prevent such activities. Guided by the native tribes’ knowledge of local conditions, former slaves and their descendants, together with indigenous people, formed a complex of nearly self-sufficient villages hidden deep in the Florida swamp lands, away from European awareness. However, there were also many former slaves and native people who participated openly in civic life, particularly in the thriving city of St. Augustine.
Governor Manual de Montiano established the first legally recognized free community of ex-slaves, known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, or Fort Mose, to serve as a defensive outpost two miles north of St. Augustine in 1738. The city and the Spanish colony that it represented were coming under increasingly determined attack from British colonial forces eager to cut off the escaping slaves’ route on what was the first ‘underground railroad.’ Fort Mose played an essential early warning, front line of defense role against James Oglethorpe, the governor of Georgia, who brought several thousand British and colonial troops to try to shut down St. Augustine in 1740. The city survived this and other assaults, in part because its fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, is constructed of coquina, a sedimentary limestone composed of tiny seashell fragments. This stone absorbs cannonballs by crushing inward rather than shattering, making it relatively impervious to bombardment. In your face, General Oglethorpe!
As I think about Thanksgiving, I wonder what American history and American life, as well as this holiday, might have been like had La Florida entered the Union as a territory in 1822 with its multi-cultural heritage intact. Instead, the colony was traded by Spain to British control in return for Havana at the end of the Seven Years War, in 1783, just before the American war of Independence. Many Spaniards and native people, and many, many former slaves fled to Cuba to avoid falling under English colonial rule. During the American revolution, Florida was considered a British colony, but it was not one of the thirteen in revolt. In fact, it became a stronghold of Tory loyalists, especially those from the south for whom Canada was too far away. By terms of the Peace of Paris, when the thirteen gained independence, La Florida was returned to the control of Spain in 1783. It had been only twenty years, but that was long enough to break some of the customs of mutual acceptance and support in diversity. Spain was at that time at war in its own land, and had no resources or attention to spare for this awkward colony half a world away. Those who had departed for Cuba two decades earlier had neither means nor inclination to return. The missions, the forts, the city all crumbled, until the territory was once again ceded to the now independent United States, which took possession in 1822. The US government immediately began a campaign to force all the remaining free blacks living there to either leave the country, or register under the control of a white supervisor. Also sadly, the Castillo de San Marco, that had been instrumental in maintaining the city’s freedom for centuries, was used for the next 70 years as a military prison to incarcerate members of Native American tribes, starting with the Seminole and members of western tribes, including Geronimo’s band of Chiricahua Apache, and Plains tribes such as the Cheyenne. Many were brought there under false pretenses by the army, and an unconscionable number died there.
It is said that the winners write history, and so of course the first Thanksgiving our culture remembers is the white English protestant prayers over turkey. The modern Wampanoag, not surprisingly, have a different take on this legend in which they figure. I invite you, this Thursday, to spare a thought for what we might learn from the indigenous tribal traditions that the colonizers so blithely ignored and expunged, about the very act of thanksgiving, not just on one day of the year, but in all our gatherings and our work together. I invite you to remember not just Plymouth Rock, but Fort Mose, when you think of our founders, as well as the Black Seminoles, descendants of indigenous people and escaped slaves, who avoided both slave catchers and removal from their lands during the 19th century by creating a hidden society deep in the Everglades. I invite you to consider that the history we share is stranger than we know, with many examples and options different than those we have been taught to remember. I invite you to ask, of yourself and others, who are the immigrants?
Because here’s the thing, dear ones – it can be done. It doesn’t require extraordinarily good people, or extraordinarily wise people; just ordinary people who believe that it is possible to live together in the midst of differences. And it won’t be perfect, because people will still be ornery, thoughtless, self-seeking, slightly obsessed beings, who annoy each other from time to time; that’s just a given. But we don’t have to be all the same to get along; we know, because it has been done. Once upon a time, here on this very continent, displaced natives and runaway slaves and Spanish sailors made a town together, and it’s still there today – the oldest European settlement in North America. It was no paradise – there was bloodshed and violence and probably all kinds of injustice – but they did a new thing in the world, and it may have had some features that were better than what would go on half a century later when the Mayflower pilgrims stepped out on their famous rock, and brought their vision of slavery to the new world.
Sometimes our history can be a hard thing to give thanks for, when all the oppression and stupidity feels overwhelming, and there seems to be no righteous place to stand. Certainly it holds no justification for supposing that we are superior mortals, or exempt from the laws of consequences, or somehow chosen of god. Nevertheless, what ordinary people have done before, we have the opportunity to try to do again, and surely that is cause for gratitude.
In the end, the stories of what has been, can inspire us or constrain us, as we choose. Perhaps we should learn to be thankful even for the mistakes of the past, if we are able to learn their lessons deeply enough that we need not repeat them. Our historical memory of the first Thanksgiving is contested, and I submit that is not a bad thing. It is the next Thanksgiving that requires our attention, so that we might remember the blessings that are ever present in this world, including the chance to do the work of justice and community better. May we be inspired in that task by the gifts of love and beauty that we pause this week to notice, and to praise.