Thankful Americans will nostalgically return to Plymouth, Mass., this week, remembering our hardy and grateful European and Native American ancestors who sat around wooden tables sagging with the bounty of the land.
But Plymouth isn't the only place where Europeans and Native Americans dined together, nor even the first. We Georgians could allow our imagination to convey us to Saint Catherines Island, a 14-acre barrier island 50 miles south of Savannah where Spanish Franciscan priests began living with the Guale Indians in 1570, 50 full years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.
Santa Catalina de Guale was a thriving Spanish mission 150 years before Oglethorpe set foot in Georgia; on the island is the site of the oldest known church in Georgia and perhaps North America.
Why don't we Georgians know this religious history? The mission of Santa Catalina, abandoned in the 1680s, was quickly reclaimed by the fertile growth of the island. For 300 years nobody could find it until in the 1970s archaeologists with keen instinct and sophisticated ground-penetrating radar discovered the mission after a five-year search followed by fifteen years of excavation.
Dr. David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History and chief archaeologist at Saint Catherines Island for over 30 years, has written extensively on Santa Catalina, describing this site as an energetic Spanish Catholic mission with many buildings, the most important being the church. Beneath the floor of this church, archaeologists discovered the burial plots of 432 Guale Indian converts to Christianity, each with arms folded and body facing the altar.
One million Santa Catalina artifacts are now displayed at the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, including 70,000 glass beads, dozens of fragments of bronze mission bells, a likeness of the baby Jesus, three dozen crosses and medallions (perhaps from the Vatican), indicating a thriving, prominent community.
Eventually, the Spanish abandoned the mission, which was never staffed by more than five Franciscan priests. The church burned during a Guale uprising and the priests were killed, either as a result of a civil war between the Guale or an uprising of the Guale against the Spanish. The Catholic Church has been carefully gathering data on these five martyrs for 23 years; the results now sit in the Vatican for a determination on declaring them martyrs of the church.
The tragic end of the mission cannot detract from more than 100 years of European/Guale interaction in Georgia. The ancient mission church was reconstituted by the Bishop of the Savannah Diocese of the Catholic Church in 1984 as a way of acknowledging the community between Europeans and Native Americans in the New World. So this Thanksgiving week, instead of sitting with pilgrims in chilly Plymouth, one might sit instead with Franciscan priests and Guale Indians in the balmier clime of a Georgia barrier island.
Maybe they ate shrimp, oysters and okra rather than turkey and cranberries.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.