Florida's First Christmas?
The first Christmas in America was most likely held near Tallahassee, Florida in 1539. In that year Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto landed near Bradenton, Florida.
Hernando de Soto traveled with 9 ships. The ships carried craftsmen, engineers, farmers, and merchants; some with their families. Some were from Cuba but most came from Europe and Africa.
They traveled up the coast and wintered in an Indian village near Tallahassee called Anhaica.
The Explorers Included Priests
Hernando’s entourage included 12 catholic priests. A Christmas celebration would most likely have been a mass to celebrate the birth of Christ, one of the most important days in Catholicism.
Archaeologists have found the remains of a village, formerly occupied by the Apalachee Indians. In that village, researchers found remnants of Spanish explorers of the period. From the archeological finds, it appears de Soto forcibly took over the village and took advantage of the grains and vegetables the Apalachee had farmed.
While it is not clear what all occurred during several months of occupation by the Spaniards, it is known that there was constant conflict between Native Americans and the 600-plus men with de Soto until they left the Indian village in March of 1540.
What would they have eaten at the First Christmas in Florida?
It is most likely the first Christmas in America would have taken place given the importance of the religious day it celebrates. The Christmas meal would have been most likely pork, vegetables and grains.
The grains would have been combined with seafood and wild game in the area. Also, pig bones were found at the site commandeered by de Soto and found by archeologists.
Any celebration of the first Christmas in America would have been religious in nature since the hardships chronicled by logs of the Spanish explorers are filled with death and starvation. Gift exchanges were very unlikely.
In March 1540, Hernando then traveled west through the panhandle of Florida. From their winter location in the western panhandle of Florida, having heard of gold being mined “toward the sun’s rising”, the expedition turned northeast through what is now the modern state of Georgia.
de Soto’s Dream of Gold
First Christmas in America Shadowed by Brutality
Along the way, it is clear from the records of survivors of the expedition that de Soto was brutal. He captured and enslaved Native Americans. On some occasions, he murdered and battled with various tribes he encountered.
Records indicate that de Soto traveled through South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. His search for gold was fruitless. He turned back to the south where he hoped to meet his ships.
The brutal journey of Hernando de Soto ended when he was wounded in one of the many skirmishes with Native Americans. He became ill with a fever and died in 1542.
The new leader of the expedition, Luis de Moscoso, led what was left of his men on rafts down the Mississippi, finally reaching Mexico in 1543. By that time there were less than half of the entourage left.
History has shown the expedition was a failed attempt to find riches in the new world. It also shows the brutality of many of the Spanish explorers. That may have set the tone for future generations of explorers who faced mistrust and armed resistance from the many Florida tribes they encountered.
While history was not kind to Hernando de Soto’s tactics, it is clear that the first Christmas in America may have been in Florida. The Catholic priests most certainly would have celebrated the birth of Jesus.
More Florida history is here –