The Lost First Thanksgiving

by on March 13th, 2015
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Everyone in Pensacola knows who first settled America. And it wasn’t a bunch of buckle-shoe-wearing pilgrims.

Yet every November the whole nation feasts and celebrates what a bunch of New Englanders did in 1621, instead of kickin’ it Florida Panhandle style circa 1559.

And with good reason, as far as history goes. Unless “feast” to you means a few crusty olives and what’s left of last week’s goat.

Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano landed 11 ships (not one of them named The Mayflower) on the Pensacola coast in August 1559. These ships were loaded with more than 1,400 people and enough supplies to last a year and establish a permanent settlement. A few weeks later, a hurricane sank the ships and the supplies, leaving more than 1,000 survivors with not a can of cranberries to their names.

But what if the storm had not hit? What if the settlement had stuck and made Pensacola the shining start of the new world? Would we still be eating Puritanical turkey every year – or would it be gator and tapas all around?

“We know of the ships that came here with de Luna had a great number of supplies,” said John Bratten, chair of the University of West Florida anthropology department and nautical archeologist. “Certainly they were carrying things like beans – frijoles – because we have the documents from Vera Cruz to show they paid for those.”

“We also found on the ships evidence of chicken, sheep or goat, and cow,” he said, while admitting there was no evidence of stuffing or green bean casserole.

“We found a papaya stem, cherry stones, plum pits, and a tropical fruit called sapote,” he added. “And of course we found olive pits and wine – and they carried olive oil and honey.”

Much of that would have been consistent with the Spanish diet of the time, and of the Spanish settlements in Mexico.

Unfortunately, when the supplies sank, De Luna and his colonists were at a loss as to how they should feed themselves, Bratten said. Even if they had stuck it out, native Panhandle grub probably would not have made it to their Thanksgiving table.

“Even later when the Spanish settled here later, they were always waiting for food to arrive from Mexico,” he said. “They had a problem utilizing local resources.”

Even though Pensacola is now famous for its seafood, shrimp would not have been a part of de Luna’s party plans, Bratten said. “They could not bring themselves to eat the local seafood or harvest it here.”

Meredith Sayles Hughes, one of the founders of The Food Museum, said that while colonists from other countries had better food – and had it earlier – the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims somehow managed to snag legendary status.

“As a long-time Easterner with deep family ties in New England, it has been eye-opening to live in the West for several years and to comprehend what good PR the Pilgrims and their supporters have had regarding ‘the first’ Thanksgiving,” said Hughes, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“Spain’s colonial settlements in the Americas were earlier and more widespread than those of the English, the Swedes, the Dutch,” she said. “Throughout South America, of course, but also in North America. Not only in Mexico, and the Caribbean, but also in California, New Mexico and Florida. Not surprisingly, they gave thanks more than once at feasts, before the English had even stepped foot on American soil.”

Many of the foods we eat today originated here with the Spanish, although we don’t think of them as Spanish foods per se, she added.

“The Spanish brought this hemisphere many edibles—pigs, cattle, sheep, and chickens, of course, but also wheat, citrus, onions and many other plants,” she said.

“They also transported America’s plants to Europe–potatoes, tomatoes, assorted beans, pineapples, corn, peppers, and more,” Hughes said. “They also influenced irrigation and agricultural practices with techniques they learned from the North African Arabs who ruled much of Spain for centuries.”

“The Pilgrims? Not so much,” she said. “However stalwart and determined, they definitely were not foodies.”

However, when you read and hear accounts of Pensacola’s downtown archeological digs where evidence of dining on turtle and alligator are found, that was not de Luna. Those findings are from later settlers, such as the British, said Bratten. “They are the ones who started using and taking advantage of the local game.”

Bratten said that while later groups adapted and learned to take advantage of the natural bounty of the area, members the de Luna settlement headed north to look for food and assistance.

“The de Luna party had a few Native Americans with them, and when they asked them for advice and one of the things they said was not to rely on the local population food supplies,” Bratten said. “When the hurricane hit, that put them at a disadvantage. They moved further north, and there is a trail that led up through Alabama to north Georgia. They relied on Indian villages for sustenance along the way, and told some people who remained (in Pensacola) to come on up.”

Had they continued their journey north, for 56 years or so, eventually they would have run into some friendly Pilgrims, who would have shared with them a turkey, some dressing, and a pumpkin pie.

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