A new Thanksgiving tradition has taken root in Texas. El Paso residents now claim the first Thanksgiving in North America. The modern event, first observed in April 1989, commemorates a day of thanksgiving celebrated by Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate and his expedition on April 30, 1598.
Juan de Oñate was a member of a distinguished family that had loyally worked for the Spanish crown. His father had discovered and developed rich mines in Zacatecas, Mexico. Oñate, himself, had opened the mines of San Luis Potosí and performed many other services for the Spanish king. But he wanted to carve an unquestioned place in history by leading an important expedition into unexplored land.
San Elizario, above during a modern celebration, is at or near the site where Juan de Oñate staged a celebration of thanksgiving in 1598. Photo by Robert Plocheck.
He was granted land in the northern Rio Grande Valley among the Pueblo Indians by the viceroy of New Spain. The viceroy moved to a new post, however, and his successor was slow to grant Oñate permission to begin his expedition. Finally, in 1597, approval came. To reach his new holdings, Oñate chose to bypass the traditional route that followed the Rio Conchos in present-day Mexico to the Rio Grande and then northward along the Rio Grande into New Mexico. In the summer of 1597, Oñate sent Vicente de Zaldívar to blaze a wagon trail from Santa Barbara in southern Chihuahua, along which could be found adequate water supplies. Zaldívar underwent many hardships, including capture by Indians, in carrying out his instructions. No mention of the hardships was made, however, when he made his report to Oñate. (The trail blazed by Zaldívar has become the route of the modern highway between Chihuahua City and El Paso.)
By early March 1598, Oñate’s expedition of 500 people, including soldiers, colonists, wives and children and 7,000 head of livestock, was ready to cross the treacherous Chihuahuan Desert. Almost from the beginning of the 50-day march, nature challenged the Spaniards. First, seven consecutive days of rain made travel miserable. Then the hardship was reversed, and the travelers suffered greatly from the dry weather. On one occasion, a chance rain shower saved the parched colonists.
Finally, for the last five days of the march before reaching the Rio Grande, the expedition ran out of both food and water, forcing the men, women and children to seek roots and other scarce desert vegetation to eat. Both animals and humans almost went mad with thirst before the party reached water. Two horses drank until their stomachs burst, and two others drowned in the river in their haste to consume as much water as possible.
The Rio Grande was the salvation of the expedition, however. After recuperating for 10 days, Oñate ordered a day of thanksgiving for the survival of the expedition. Included in the event was a feast, supplied with game by the Spaniards and with fish by the natives of the region. A mass was said by the Franciscan missionaries traveling with the expedition. And finally, Oñate read La Toma — the taking — declaring the land drained by the Great River to be the possession of King Philip II of Spain.
Some historians call this one of the truly important dates in the history of the continent, marking the beginning of Spanish colonization in the American Southwest.
A member of the expedition wrote of the original celebration, “We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before. . .We were happy that our trials were over; as happy as were the passengers in the Ark when they saw the dove returning with the olive branch in his beak, bringing tidings that the deluge had subsided.”
After the celebration, the Oñate expedition continued up the Rio Grande and eventually settled near Santa Fé. As one historian noted, when Jamestown and Plymouth were established early in the 17th century, they were English attempts to gain a foothold in the New World. Santa Fé was but one of hundreds of towns the Spanish already had established in the New World.
Sheldon Hall, president of the El Paso Mission Trail Association that sponsored the modern celebration, also said that the first drama presented in North America was part of the celebration. The play, written by a Capt. Farfan of the expedition, was produced by the soldiers and depicted the conversion of the Indians to Christianity.
More than 100 costumed participants re-enacted the celebration in the 1989 re-creation performed at the Chamizal National Memorial, a few miles from where the original observance took place. Tigua Indians of El Paso played the parts of the natives of the region who met Oñate at the Rio Grande.
Officials from Mexico and the United States were present, as well as Manuel Gullon y de Oñate, the Count of Tepa in Spain and a direct descendant of the colonizer. About 50 people also attended a reunion of the descendants of the members of the expedition.
San Elizario held a fiesta to note that the actual celebration by Oñate’s expedition took place near the city, and a historical marker telling of the observance was unveiled.
The celebration is not an attempt to wrest the Thanksgiving tradition from New England. Ricardo Marti-Fluxa, Spain’s consul general in Houston, attended the event and said, “We don’t want to fight against any tradition. But we feel it was a deprivation not to acknowledge the full history of the United States of America.” Hall, a Mayflower descendant and New England immigrant, hopes that the re-enactment will become an annual spring event in El Paso.
The First Thanksgiving
With El Paso’s entry into the Thanksgiving sweepstakes, Texas now has two observances in what’s becoming a crowded field of locales vying for attention as the site of the first Thanksgiving.
The second Texas claim was an event held earliest of all those claiming primacy. The Texas Society of Daughters of the American Colonists placed a marker in 1959 just outside Canyon. It declared that the expedition of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in May 1541 celebrated the first feast of Thanksgiving in Palo Duro Canyon. Fray Juan Padilla said a mass at this observance. However, later research indicated that grapes and pecans were gathered by the celebrants for the feast, and neither grow in Palo Duro Canyon.
There is now some doubt whether this was a special thanksgiving or a celebration of the Feast of the Ascension. It was held in Texas, but may have been on one of the forks of the Brazos River farther south, probably in Blanco Canyon.
Other Claims to the First Thanksgiving
There’s no doubt that today’s Thanksgiving tradition is New England born and bred. It’s not a single tradition, however, but a combination of traditions, according to one researcher. Randall Mason, a researcher for Plimoth Plantation Inc., which operates a model 17th century village at Plymouth, Mass., says today’s celebration is a cross between a British harvest festival and a special day of religious thanksgiving, both originally observed by pilgrims in New England.
In 1621, just months after their arrival from England, residents of Plymouth celebrated a harvest festival, which was indistinguishable from those observed throughout Britain at the time. It was a secular event with feasting and games. The only religious observance was the saying of grace before the meal.
Two years later, the governor of Plymouth colony called for a special day of religious thanksgiving for the end of a drought that plagued the colony. This was an extra day of prayer and religious observance, according to Mason. Special days of religious thanksgiving were called throughout the colonial period.
Connecticut is given credit for initially adopting an annual day of general thanksgiving. The first for which a proclamation exists was called for Sept. 18, 1639, although some may have been held earlier. Another on record was held in 1644, and from 1649 onward, these special days of general thanksgiving were held annually.
Massachusetts Bay Colony began annual observances in 1660.
Several other states, however, claim the first thanksgiving. Puritans who arrived to establish Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 observed a special day of prayer that is often called the “first Thanksgiving.” Even earlier in Florida, a small colony of French Huguenots living near present-day Jacksonville noted a special thanksgiving prayer. The colony soon was wiped out by the Spanish.
Maine, too, stakes a claim to the first Thanksgiving on the basis of a service held by colonists on August 9, 1607, to give thanks for a safe voyage.
Virginians are convinced their ancestors celebrated the first Thanksgiving when Jamestown settlers in 1610 held a service of thanksgiving for their survival of a harsh winter.
Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine had annual thanksgiving observances before the 19th century. New York joined the group in 1817, and Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana soon followed.
Throughout the 19th century, Thanksgiving observances spread from state to state. Occasionally, special national days of thanksgiving were proclaimed by American presidents. George Washington called the first national observance in 1789.
Sam Houston proclaimed that March 2, 1842, Texas Independence Day, be a day of celebration of freedom and thanksgiving. But Gov. George Wood proclaimed the first Thanksgiving observance in Texas for the first Thursday in December 1849.
Abraham Lincoln initiated the tradition of a national annual day of thanksgiving with a proclamation in 1863, during the Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt deviated from the practice of observing the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving in 1939. Retailers noted that a November 30 observance of Thanksgiving that year would leave only 20 shopping days until Christmas, since the shopping season usually opens with the November holiday. A Nov. 23 observance was recognized by 23 states, and a similar number stuck to the November 30 celebration. Texas and Colorado commemorated both days. (Alaska and Hawaii, of course, were not in the Union at the time.)
In 1941, FDR signed the law making the fourth Thursday in November the nation’s official Thanksgiving day. However, in 1944, 1945, 1950, 1951 and 1956, November had five Thursdays, and while other states changed their observances to coincide with the national law, Texas remained the lone holdout, observing the last Thursday in 1956. The Legislature changed the law in 1957 making the fourth Thursday in November the state’s official Thanksgiving.
— adapted from an article by Mike Kingston, then editor, for the Texas Almanac 1990–1991