The Grinch Who Stole Thanksgiving–that’s how some folks (particularly in the New England) refer to Michael Gannon, emeritus professor of history at the University of Florida. I don’t know if we can say that Gannon really “stole” Thanksgiving, but he at least articulated an alternative narrative to our traditional story that the first Thanksgiving occurred in 1621 at Plymouth Rock. In his 1965 book, The Cross in the Sand, Gannon argued that the original Thanksgiving occurred at St. Augustine, Florida on September 8, 1565, a full 56 years prior to our traditional dating. Like much of academic discourse, Gannon’s work remained out of the public sphere until 1985, when a reporter popularized the idea that Thanksgiving’s origins should point south, to Florida. The issue has received further popularizing in a new children’s book, America’s REAL First Thanksgiving.
Many Americans will no doubt shrug their shoulders and say, “Who cares?” I know it won’t ruin my turkey tomorrow, but I think that this story does have some interesting implications. I still have vivid memories of cutting out figures of Pilgrims, Indians, and turkeys from construction paper during elementary school. That’s the image that remains in my mind, and is part of a foundational narrative in American collective memory. American identity is in part dependent on the image of the English Protestants having the first meal dedicated to giving thanks to God in the New World. That’s where Gannon’s work gets interesting, because it presents a countermemory that contests traditional narratives and identities in the U.S. Rather than imagining white protestants that speak English sitting down with Native Americans, Gannon provides an image of Catholic Spaniards in Florida having that first feast of gratitude. A different image with a distinctive identity behind it.
Two truisms apply here: memory has more to do with the present than with the past and collective memories reflect power and are therefore frequently contested. It remains to be seen whether this counter-image will ever be accepted by enough people in the United States for it to really challenge the traditional 1621 dating and image. As is obvious from the article I cited above, there are people in Florida who celebrate the 1565 date. I found another website, from which the above picture is taken, that claims that the first Thanksgiving was actually held in 1598 in New Mexico, and invites people to celebrate that date. Given the politically charged debates over whether the U.S. should be a bilingual nation, coupled with the ever increasing hispanic population in the country, I expect to see more such counter-narratives that contest and challenge traditional images rooted in English Protestantism.