An early history of Thanksgiving feasts on Key Biscayne

The earliest possible Thanksgiving feasts on Key Biscayne were held nearly 200 years ago after Florida became a Territory of the fledgling United States.

In 1825, the island’s first lighthouse keeper, John DuBose, with his wife, Margaret, and their many children moved into the just-completed keeper’s cottage beside the new Cape Florida Lighthouse. Dubose was a former Carolinian and then customs master at St. Augustine. He would most likely have been aware of St Augustine’s Thanksgiving tradition with Florida’s Timucua, which is purported to predate the Pilgrims’ and Wampanoags’ gathering at Plymouth Rock.

Given the remote and uninhabited nature of Key Biscayne, the island and its surrounding water fortunately offered the keeper’s family good hunting, fishing and collecting of edibles. They cooked outdoors or in one of two fireplaces in the house. One can imagine that Thanksgiving and other holiday festivities, as well as day-to-day cooking, was made easier some time later when a separate cookhouse was added behind the cottage.

Traditionally, Thanksgiving celebrations mean a game bird. The wild turkey, called by ornithologist and artist John James Audubon “The Great American Cock,” was the bird of choice. Audubon, who reported seeing the Cape Lighthouse in 1832 while cruising to the Florida Keys, documented many early American bird species including the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo). If wild turkeys were not available, early pioneers turned to other abundant species. In fact, a subsequent keeper’s descendent said there was a rookery of Roseate Spoonbills conveniently located at the Cape.

The last keeper of the light, from 1868–1878, was John Frow. When his daughter, Catherine, was 90 she recalled that when they moved to the cape about 30 years after the well-documented 1836 Indian Attack, contact with the Seminole was re-established, with their “friends from the Everglades” often visiting her family at the Cape.

“On Thanksgiving Day,” she said, “they came in dugouts with wild turkey, and venison fresh from the Glades, sweet potatoes and corn… they stayed while bread was baked in a six-foot oven of bricks and the venison in a large fireplace. I remember after the meal listening to music played on a violin, flute and guitar, then the Indians said goodbye until another day.”

May we all experience a Thanksgiving Day of camaraderie with family and friends in the welcoming tradition of our Island’s early pioneer.

Joann Gill Blank celebrating her 90th birthday last year (2018)

Joan Gill Blank has been a Key Biscayne resident since 1951. She is the author of Key Biscayne, Miami’s Tropical Island [Pineapple Press, 1994]

Key Biscayne. A History of Miami's tropical Island and the Cape Florida Lighthouse

Click here to enjoy a look back at an Islander News article celebrating Joan's 90th birthday and her years in Key Biscayne.