While it makes sense that the concept of St. Nicholas came to the New World with the first European explorers, the earliest mentions are relatively sparse.
There is the fact that in 1126 the first bishop of Garðar,
Arnaldur (who was ordained by the Archbishop of Lund
in 1124), arrived in Greenland and started the
construction of a cathedral devoted to St. Nicholas,
patron saint of sailors. http://www.spottinghistory.com/
And in 1492 Columbus entered a port at the extreme
west end of the Island of Santo Domingo, or, as the
island was then called, Haiti. The natives called it Port
Bohio, but Columbus christened it, in honor of the day
he arrived (Saint Nicholas Day, December 6), Port Saint
Nicholas. (Haiti: A Degenerating Island, by Rear Admiral
Colby M. Chester, U.S. Navy, The National Geographic
Magazine, The National Geographic Society, Hubbard
Memorial Hall, Washington, D.C. Vol. XIX-Year 1908,
The first celebration of the feast of St. Nicholas in America probably
originated in Albany (imported from the Netherlands). A 1675 baker’s
account mentions that Maria van Rensselaer bought Sinterklaas
[Santa Claus] goods, illustrating that the feast of Saint Nicolas was
celebrated in Albany at that time. This item could possibly be the
earliest reference to the celebration ofSinterklaas (Saint Nicolas) in
New Netherland. http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/mssc/vrm/bakers_
Sometime around 1740 the Spanish built a fort in
Florida that would later become Jacksonville. It’s
purpose was to defend Cowford crossing (also known
as Pass de San Nicholas, or Saint Nicholas Ferry),
protect settlers and missionaries from Indians, preserve
South Florida against the British and Americans, and
prevent smugglers from using the St. Johns River.
During the early 1800’s, the place was simply called
“Cowford” (or “Cow Ford”). The St. Johns River narrowed
at a point next to the present-day County Courthouse.
The riverbanks also sloped down in this area, allowing
for an easier passage. Florida cowboys chose the spot
to cross their cattle on the way to market. At low tide,
drivers walked their beasts to center stream and then
forced them to swim the rest of the way. In other words, this was the place where cows forded, or “Cowford.”
Years before, the Timucuan Indians had bestowed a similar name on the location. They called it Wacca Pilatka, the “place where the cattle cross.” On the other hand, the Spanish referred to the site as the “Pass of San Nicholas,” that is, the “Pass of St. Nicholas.” A neighborhood just east of South Jacksonville still goes by that name.
As Santa Claus, the earliest mention in America is
an item in Rivington's Gazetteer for December 23,
1773: “Last Monday the anniversary of St. Nicholas,
otherwise called Santa Claus, was celebrated at
Protestant Hall, at Mr. Waldron's; where a great
number of sons of that ancient saint celebrated the
day with great joy and festivity.” http://www.
That same year New York non-Dutch patriots
formed the Sons of St. Nicholas, primarily as a
non-British symbol to counter the English St.
George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas.
This society was similar to the Sons of St. Tammany
in Philadelphia. Not exactly St. Nicholas, the
children's gift-giver. http://www.stnicholascenter.
Another notice appeared in Rivington’s Gazetteer in
All these are but clues as to what might have been going on. It is not until 1809, with the publication of Washington Irving’s “A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker”, that we see the real legend of Santa Claus in America begin to take shape.
Cows crossing the St. Johns River: http://www.stjohnsriverkeeper.org/map/cowford-becomes-jacksonville?KeepThis=true&TB_iframe=true&height=450&width=820
Port Saint Nicholas: http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/f5/c5/30/f5c5305847ba2c1ee58aab7c9dcb3605.jpg
What's left of the cathedral: http://www.spottinghistory.com/view/2905/garoar/
The changing masthead of Rivington’s newspaper: http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/03/james-rivington-kings-printer-patriot-spy/
The handwritten baker's list: http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/mssc/vrm/bakers_account.htm