On September 8, 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and 800 Spanish settlers founded the city of St. Augustine in Spanish La Florida. As soon as they were ashore, the landing party celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving. Afterward, Menéndez laid out a meal to which he invited as guests the native Seloy tribe who occupied the site. The celebrant of the Mass was St. Augustine’s first pastor, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, and the feast day in the church calendar was that of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. What exactly the Seloy natives thought of those strange liturgical proceedings we do not know, except that, in his personal chronicle, Father Lopez wrote that “the Indians imitated all they saw done.”
The thanksgiving at St. Augustine was celebrated 56 years before the Puritan Pilgrim thanksgiving at Plymouth Plantation (Massachusetts), but it did not become the origin of a national annual tradition. During the 18th century, British forces won out over those of Spain and France for mastery over the continent. Thus, British observances, such as the annual reenactment of the Pilgrims’ harvest festival in 1621, became a national practice. After the United States became an independent country, Congress recommended one yearly day of thanksgiving for the whole nation to celebrate. George Washington suggested the date November 26.