Q. Is it true that the first American Thanksgiving was actually held by Catholics in Florida, rather than Puritans in Massachusetts?
A. It depends, of course, on how you define “Thanksgiving.” We could say that the most appropriate feast to call the first “Thanksgiving” in the European colonies of America actually occurred on September 8, 1565, in St. Augustine, Florida — 56 years before the English Puritans had their feast in Massachusetts.
The leader of the Catholic Spanish colonists, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, along with eight hundred Spanish settlers, celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving and then invited the native Seloy tribe, who occupied the site, to join them for a grand meal. They probably feasted on the food items that had been stocked on their ship for the long voyage: cocido, a stew made from salted pork, garbanzo beans and garlic; plus hard sea biscuits and red wine. If the Seloys contributed food to the meal, then the menu might have also included wild turkey, venison, gopher tortoise, mullet, corn, beans, and squash.
Even before the event in St. Augustine, numerous Masses of Thanksgiving for a safe voyage and landing had been held in Florida by priests with Spanish explorers such as Juan Ponce de Leon (in 1513 and 1521); Panfilo de Narvaez (1528); Hernando de Soto (1529); Father Luis Cancer de Barbastro (1549); and Tristan de Luna (1559). So, yes, in this sense we can say that the first “Thanksgiving” was actually observed by Catholics in Florida.
We should note that long before Jamestown was settled in 1607, Catholic missionaries from Spain were spreading throughout what is now the southeastern region of the United States. They preached the Gospel, baptized native converts, and provided them with sacraments and catechesis.
Jesuits and Franciscans came to St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the United States, founded in 1565. (This was 42 years before the first permanent English colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia.) From there they went out to establish missions in what is now Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas — nearly two centuries before the better-known Franciscan missions of the American southwest.