Blaring trumpets and thundering artillery serenaded Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés as he waded ashore on September 8, 1565. The Spanish admiral kissed a cross held aloft by the fleet’s captain, Father Francisco Lopez, then claimed Florida for both his God and his country. As curious members of the indigenous Timucua tribe looked on, the 800 newly arrived colonists gathered around a makeshift altar as Father Lopez performed a Catholic mass of thanksgiving for their safe arrival in the newly christened settlement of St. Augustine. At the invitation of Menéndez, the Timucuans then joined the newcomers in a communal meal.
Some Florida historians have argued that this feast—and not the one held 56 years later by the Pilgrims and Wampanoags in Plymouth, Massachusetts—was actually North America’s first Thanksgiving. “It was the first community act of religion and thanksgiving in the first permanent settlement in the land,” wrote University of Florida professor emeritus of history Michael Gannon in his book “The Cross in the Sand.”