The First Thanksgiving

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Those Early Bisayans

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How many of you have been told by Euro-Americans to go back to where you came from because their ancestors were here first? The "bagoong" of these Bisayans flows through your veins. Look them straight in the eye and tell them proudly, "My ancestors were there to greet them!"

The First Thanksgiving

On 27 April 1521, on the island of Mactan, Magellan became the first European tourist to get unlucky in the Philippines. Alvaro de Saavedra in 1527 and Ruy Lopez de Villabolos in 1541 followed him unsuccessfully. It was not until 27 April 1565 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi reached Cebu that Spain established a permanent Spanish presence in the Philippines.

With Fr. Andres de Urdaneta as the navigator, the San Pablo under the command of Legazpi's grandson, Felipe de Salcedo, departed the Philippines in June 1565 to search for a return route to Mexico. The route went northeast from the Philippines to the east coast of Japan and then east to an area off the Mendocino coast of California and then followed the coast southward to Acapulco. The Manila galleons used the "Urdaneta" passage for the next 250 years to bring the riches of Asia to Europe through Mexico. It is along this route that the first of the los Indios de Las Filipinas arrived in America.

Who were these Indios? They were not Filipinos, for that was a term reserved only for a Spaniard of pure blood born in the islands. They had many names. The term Bisayans is an appropriate name to call them since the Spaniards brought these Indios to the new world as slaves. According to Dr. Juan Francisco, visiting Fulbright scholar at San Francisco State University, the pre-Hispanic name referred to the area as the islands of the slaves, Bisayas.

The Spaniards needed these Bisayans to sail their ships to Acapulco. The average sized galleon required a crew of over 200 men. The typical ratio was 5 Indios to 1 Spaniard. Francisco Leandro de Viana said, "They can teach many of the Spanish seamen who sail in those seas."

After over 50 years of rule in the New World, the Spaniards reduced the native populations to the point where they had to bring in replacement labor from outside the America's, such as Africa and Las Filipinas.

In addition to the precious cargo of spices and silks from the Philippines, these galleons also carried deep within their holds Bisayans. The trade in human suffering continued until 1615 when the King of Spain decreed the end of the selling of his subject Indios from the Philippines in the New World. The trade in Indias, slave women, had ended in 1608.

Upon the galleon's arrival at Acapulco, the cargo was sold and shipped overland to Mexico City and then on to Vera Cruz. From there, the cargo was loaded on the great Spanish galleons. Bisayans and crew members not needed to sail the galleon back to the Philippines carried the cargo.

Many of these Bisayans and sailors died before they arrived in the New World. Others would escape from the galleons before the ship's arrival at Acapulco. If they were unlucky and arrived at Acapulco, they were sold into slavery to work in the silver mines or farms of Mexico. Others would end their lives working on plantations in Cuba. Many went on to help settle the frontiers of the New World.

New Mexico

Spain began the serious exploration of Nueva Mexico in the late 1580's. Some of the adventurers were Spaniards who had arrived from the Philippines with their Indio servants. There are records of slaves being taken north to help settle the new land.

Since the Spaniards' exploration took them west to the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, north to the Black Hills, and east to the banks of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, could Filipinos have been there, too?

In the early 1600's, the Native Americans attacked the Spaniards and drove them out of New Mexico. Many of the Indios were left behind. What happened to them? If they were not killed by the Indians, what tribes were they "adopted" into?

Compare the dress of a Pueblo Indian woman in traditional dress with that of a Filipina native from the remote regions of the Philippines. The resemblance in the colors and patterns on the dress, and the way the hair is worn cannot be ignored.


At the same time that the Philippines was being conquered, the Spaniards began their exploration of Florida. In 1565, St. Augustin was founded to act as a buffer against the French settlements in what is now Southeastern Georgia. After the defeat of the French in 1570, Spain built a series of missions from St. Augustin west to Mobile, Alabama, and north along the southeast coast of Georgia and the Carolinas. Spain established a few military forts in Southern Virginia by 1605. The literature mentions the importation of skilled Indios who helped to build the fortress.

Since surplus Indios were sold at auctions, it is possible the Bisayans were scattered throughout the Caribbean area and could have been at St. Augustin as early as the 1570's. From there they would have followed the settlers and soldiers to the mission settlements.

Since these Indios could have retained a strong desire for freedom, it is possible that they escaped into the swamps surrounding St. Augustin and the missions and later intermarried with the Native Americans. The Seminole Indians of Florida are the only Indians who wear a turban style headgear and tight, sleeveless jackets that resemble the dress of the Moro's of the Philippines. Is there a relationship?

Further research could support the presence of Bisayans in Southern Virginia prior to 1600. England established their first settlements in the Continental U.S. around Jamestown in 1605. The first African slaves were sold at Jamestown in 1619, 20 years after the Bisayans were there.


Fred Cordova, the grandfather of community based Filipino historians and author of Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, defines a Pinoy as any individual with at least one drop of "bagoong" in their veins. Could these early Filipinos have escaped northward from their Spanish captors? Could they have intermarried with the Native American women and produced mixed blood children that passed on portions of their "bagoong" to the next generation?

How many of you have been told by Euro-Americans to go back to where you came from because their ancestors were here first? How many Euro-Americans have told you that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower in 1620 and landed at Plymouth Rock?

Do not stand there quiet and ashamed. The "bagoong" of these Bisayans flows through your veins. Look them straight in the eye and tell them proudly, "My ancestors were there to greet them!"

Those early Bisayans probably exhibited the hospitality and generosity that modern Filipinos are associated with.

Let us take this possibility one step further. Perhaps the Bisayans were there and along with the natives they did invite the starving Pilgrims to dinner one cold November afternoon. The dinner would have consisted of typical island dishes such as lechon, pinakbet, sinigang, lumpia, and pansit.

Happy Thanksgiving !!!