Where Was The First St. Patrick's Day Parade Held In The US?

St. Patrick, the patron saint and national apostle of Ireland (per Britannica), probably wouldn't recognize the bacchanalia his feast day has become. The 5th century saint, credited with Christianizing Ireland and, according to popular legend, driving snakes out of the place, was by most accounts a humble, temperate man with an astonishing reputation of resurrecting the dead. In the United States, at least, St. Patrick's Day is instead often an opportunity for young people to get so drunk that by the next day they're left with a hangover severe enough to make them wish for a permanent death.

The festival is popular in America largely because it's home to a large community of Irish immigrants and their descendants. While the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) has the largest share of the Irish diaspora, the United States comes in second place (via US News and World Report), with 35 million Americans claiming Irish heritage. In the 19th century between 1820 and 1860, a third of all immigrants to the United States were Irish (via Library of Congress), who were often prompted to leave their home country due to British oppression and the 1845 potato blight.

Early celebrations in New York City and Boston

These Irish immigrants soon came to dominate Northeastern cities — in New York City, there were more Irish residents than in Dublin, according to the Library of Congress. It was in these cities that St. Patrick's Day parades first became popular. In 1737, early Irish immigrants in Boston gathered on St. Patrick's Day to honor their homeland, according to History. In the 1760s, Irishmen serving in the British military held a celebration in New York City, in honor of their new freedom in the British colonies to express pride in their home country — by wearing green, for instance, which England had banned in Ireland.

When Irish immigration increased to America over the next century, these traditions grew to an annual March 17 celebration of all things Ireland. The first St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City that goes up Fifth Avenue (its route passes St. Patrick's Cathedral) was in 1762 and is today recognized as one of the earliest such homages to the Irish saint (via NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade), but it wasn't the first St. Patrick's Day parade in the U.S. 

San Patricio

According to The Washington Post, the first known St. Patrick's Day celebration in the United States was not in one of these northeast cities. Nor was it held during a time of large Irish exodus. Instead, the first known St. Patrick's Day parade — or rather, a parade for "San Patricio" — was held in the then-Spanish colony of Florida in the early 17th century. The evidence of this celebration was found in a book of Spanish colonial records from the 16th and 17th centuries.

"At first, it didn't register because it was so unexpected," said the historian J. Michael Francis to the Post, about discovering the record. "Then I thought, wait a second, they had a St. Patrick's Day celebration in St. Augustine in 1600?"

Following that celebration, in 1601, the Florida city of St. Augustine held a St. Patrick's Day parade, according to the records. The parade itself was likely a procession featuring a carried portrait of the saint, followed by a feast. No dyed green rivers yet — just a celebration of a Catholic saint like any other.