As we cut through the myth and misconception surrounding the “first Thanksgiving,” it is easy to say that there was nothing new or novel about the October 1621 “harvest feast” celebrated in Massachusetts by the surviving Mayflower passengers. Certainly harvest festivals go back to the dawn of time. And in America, such “thanksgiving days” were surely celebrated by the Spanish in the Southwest and Englishmen in Virginia well before the Mayflower sailed.
But one group has been left out of the picture completely. And their story deserves to be part of the Thanksgiving conversation. They were French and had the good sense to settle in Florida in June instead of Massachusetts in December. They reached the future America in 1564, long before the Mayflower arrived in December 1620 carrying those “Pilgrims.” Like the storied English Separatists, these French Protestants, or Huguenots, came to America seeking religious freedom in the midst of France’s bloody religious civil wars. But they have been overlooked by most history books. Their plight — and tragic fate– is the subject of an article I wrote for the New York Times.
TO commemorate the arrival of the first pilgrims to America’s shores, a June date would be far more appropriate, accompanied perhaps by coq au vin and a nice Bordeaux. After all, the first European arrivals seeking religious freedom in the “New World” were French. And they beat their English counterparts by 50 years. That French settlers bested the Mayflower Pilgrims may surprise Americans raised on our foundational myth, but the record is clear.
Here you can read the rest of this Op-Ed, A French Connection which first appeared in the New York Times on November 25, 2008.
The complete story of the French Huguenots who settled Fort Caroline in Florida is told in the first chapter of America’s Hidden History.
You can also learn more about the “first Pilgrims” at the Fort Caroline and Fort Matanzas National Park Service sites.