April 30, 1598, members of Juan de Onate's expedition had every right
to be thankful.
For 50 days, Onate's 500-person entrada had endured the Chihuahuan
Desert. It rained almost constantly during the first seven days of
their trek north from Mexico. Then the desert returned to normal and
the expedition soon began suffering from lack of water. Forty-five
days into the trip, the Spaniards ran out of both water and food.
Finally reaching the Rio Grande at what would become El
Paso, man and animal alike rushed to quench their thirst in the
river - the stream running fast and fresh from melted mountain snow
in what is now New Mexico. Two horses died from drinking too much,
two others drowned.
It took 10 days at the Pass of the North for the expedition to recover
from the hardships of the journey through the desert. On the 11th
day, at Onate's order, the Spaniards celebrated a day of thanksgiving.
"We built a great bonfire and roasted...meat and fish, and then all
sat down to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before,"
wrote one member of the expedition. "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."
What has not subsided and probably never will is debate over whether
the feast at El
Paso on that spring day more than 400 years ago should be recognized
as America's first thanksgiving. Actually, Texas already has recognized
the fact. It says so right there in the official state-approved Texas
history curriculum. And former Gov. Rick Perry duly claimed April
30 as "the official day of the First Thanksgiving for Texas."
Others, of course, don't see it that way. A website maintained by
Plimoth (yes, Plimoth with an "i" instead of a "y") Plantation Inc.,
which has a replica 17th century village at Plymouth, Mass., has a
page dedicated to "Claimants For 'The First Thanksgiving.'"
Onate's El Paso
feed is not even the first of the 10 claimants listed. That honor
goes to another Spaniard, Ponce de Leon, who landed in what is now
Florida during the Easter season of 1513.
Second on the list, and also earlier than the El
Paso celebration, is Francisco Vasquez de Coronado's celebration
of a Thanksgiving Mass on May 23, 1541. The year before, Coronado
had led a 1,500-person entrada north from Mexico City, his quest the
legendary Quivira, the grandest of seven supposed cities of gold.
While Coronado discovered no precious metal, he found plenty of hardship.
On the up side, he did become the first European to see much of what
is now the American Southwest.
The chronicler of the expedition recorded that Friar Juan de Padilla
celebrated the mass, a service followed by a feast of roasted buffalo,
grapes and pecans. (Some believe this celebration actually was in
recognition of the Feast of the Ascension.) Whatever the occasion
of the feed, not until the late 19th century did scholars begin trying
to trace Coronado's route.
For years, the consensus had been that the early Thanksgiving dinner
had taken place in Palo
Duro Canyon, in what later became the Texas
Panhandle. More recent archeological research advances the possibility
of Coronado's expedition having been in Blanco Canyon in present Foard
County, not in the Palo Duro. Others have even argued that the
event took place somewhere on the upper Brazos River.
claims aside, the truth is that Thanksgiving as we know it today is
indeed derived from the celebration of the fall harvest at Plymouth
in 1621. The tradition grew. By 1789, President George Washington
proclaimed a national observance of Thanksgiving.
Sam Houston, another
tall Virginian, was Texas' "George Washington." He thought March 2
would make a fine Thanksgiving Day for Texas. Not only was that the
anniversary of Texas' declaration of independence from Mexico, it
just happened to be Houston's birthday.
That holiday, however, took on its own flavor. In 1849, the way Texas
Gov. George Wood saw it, the first Thursday in December should be
the day the new state's Thanksgiving should be observed.
War-weary President Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday
in 1863, but it was not until 1941 that Congress passed a law making
the fourth Thursday in November the day to observe the holiday.
"We were first" claims and Congressional action aside, no one group
or religion can hold a monopoly on the concept of simply being thankful
for all the good things in life.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November
First published November 26, 2014