November 02, 2016

Fort Caroline

Stephen Nichols
Fort Caroline


Here's a bit of a trick question for you: Where was the first Thanksgiving on American soil? You might be tempted to think of New England—after all, Thanksgiving traditions all point us back to New England—but you actually might be wrong. The first Thanksgiving service, or Thanksgiving day, likely occurred on June 30, 1564, at Fort Caroline, which is near the modern-day city of Jacksonville, Fla.

Fort Caroline was established along the St. Johns River in Florida in 1564 by a group of French Huguenots. In 1562, their leader had made an exploratory trip to Florida and had found this delightful place at the St. Johns River, a place for a settlement, and in 1564, two hundred French Huguenot settlers landed in Florida and set up Fort Caroline. They landed in June, and by June 30, they decided to have a service of thanksgiving and celebration of coming to this new world. And this is what they said on this momentous day: "On the morrow, about the break of day, I commanded a trumpet to be sounded that, being assembled, we might give God thanks for our favorable and happy arrival. Then we sang a psalm of thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him, that it would please Him of His Grace, to continue His accustomed goodness toward us, His poor servants, and aid us in all our enterprises that all might turn to His glory and the advancement of our King."

Now, there is a fascinating line in there that I want to focus on, because not only was this the first Thanksgiving, but this was also the first Protestant hymn sung in the New World. Notice that they say they sang a psalm of thanksgiving. When these French Huguenots came, they brought with them the Genevan Psalter. This was the psalter that was produced by John Calvin in Geneva, and it was a significant part of the Huguenots' worship services.

The Spanish also had an interest in Florida. In fact, the Spanish who were sent to settle Florida had a direct order to rid the colony of the French. More of the French came in 1565. In fact, another six hundred arrived that summer. In September, the Spanish who had settled a little south of Fort Caroline at St. Augustine attacked and captured Fort Caroline and nearly wiped out the Huguenots. The ones who survived the war and survived the massacre made their way back to France, and that was the end of the French attempts to colonize Florida.

While they were here, the French taught the Indians how to sing their songs. These were the Timucuan Indians, and they learned to sing the Psalter. In fact, when Timucuan Indians, right around the time of this massacre and before all the French left, came into contact with European colonists, they would hum a line from the Psalter, and if the person they were meeting with was able to give the line back, they knew they were French. But if the European to whom they hummed the line had no idea what they were singing, they knew that they were Spanish and knew to avoid them.

So, there we have it at Fort Caroline. The first Thanksgiving and the first Protestant hymn sing in America.