In last year’s Thanksgiving Day post, “A Thanksgiving of Fasting and Oysters,” I listed claims to “first” Thanksgiving services in addition to the traditional 1621 Plimouth Colony (Massachusetts) celebration. A few most mentioned are: 1541, Canyon, Texas, led by Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado; 1564, Fort Caroline (Jacksonville, Florida), led by French Huguenot René de Laudonniere; 1565, St. Augustine, Florida, led by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez; 1607, Kennebec River, Maine, led by English Captain George Popham; and 1610, Jamestown, Virginia, led by Governor Thomas De La Warr.
I propose to settle this issue by saying that the first Protestant Thanksgiving service was the 1564 service in Florida by French Protestant emigrés, since the 1541 service in Texas was held by Catholics. See “The French Connection” by Kenneth C. Davis, New York Times, November 25, 2008.
In order to flee persecution by French Catholics, 600 French Huguenot soldiers and settlers led by Jean Ribault landed near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, and built Fort Caroline* on St. John’s River. Setting a day of Thanksgiving on June 30, 1564, de Laudonniere wrote, “We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us.” Whether there was a Thanksgiving fellowship meal afterwards is not known.
Since King Philip II of Spain had claimed the same territory after Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed there in 1513, he promptly ordered Menéndez to drive out the French and to establish a Spanish colony. Menéndez, with the aid of a hurricane, destroyed the French fleet and captured most of the French settlers. When 245 of the faithful French refused to retract their Reformed faith, the Spanish put them all to the sword. In “The Massacre of the French,” The National Park Service recalls the tragic turn of events surrounding the founding of Fort Matanzas:
With a captured Frenchman as translator, Menéndez described how Fort Caroline had been captured and urged the French to surrender. Rumors to the contrary, he made no promises as to sparing them. Having lost most of their food and weapons in the shipwreck, they did surrender. However, when Menéndez then demanded that they give up their Protestant faith and accept Catholicism, they refused. 111 Frenchmen were killed. Only sixteen were spared—a few who professed being Catholic, some impressed Breton sailors, and four artisans needed at St. Augustine.
Two weeks later the sequence of events was repeated. More French survivors appeared at the inlet, including Jean Ribault. On October 12 Ribault and his men surrendered and met their fate, again refusing to give up their faith. This time 134 were killed. From that time, the inlet was called Matanzas—meaning “slaughters” in Spanish.
Many of the French Protestants who survived went back to France, only to suffer again at the hands of the French Catholics in the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 5,000-10,000 of their brethren, a more horrendous sequel to the 1565 Matanzas Massacre.
Truly a sad ending to a joyous first Protestant Thanksgiving worship 444 years ago.
* Fort Caroline was named after King Charles IX of France, whose name in Latin is Carolus. North and South Carolina are so named as well, but in honor of Charles I of England.