Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Real "First Thanksgiving"

When most people think of the first Thanksgiving in North America they usually think of dour, grim-faced Puritans in New England, the revolutionary general George Washington or President Lincoln ordering a day of thanks for the victories of the Union armies in the Civil War. However, Texans know that it was actually our country which was home to the first Thanksgiving, carried out by missionaries and conquistadors rather than Puritans, all loyal forces of His Catholic Majesty the King of Spain. It was on April 30, 1598 near what is now the West Texas city of El Paso and the man responsible was Juan de Oñate. He came from a well regarded family long known for their loyal service to the Spanish crown. His father had discovered and developed the mining industry in Zacatecas, Mexico and Juan de Oñate opened the mines in San Luis Potosi and carried out numerous duties for the King of Spain. However, he had itching feet as the old timers would say and longed to make a name for himself as an intrepid explorer. Monarchists may also be interested to know that Juan de Oñate was married to Isabel de Tolosa, the granddaughter of Fernando Cortes and Isabel Montezuma who was herself one of the many children of the famous Aztec Emperor Montezuma II.

Juan de Oñate was given a land grant in the unexplored lands of the northern Rio Grande Valley among the Pueblo Indians by the Spanish Viceroy. However, when that post changed hands the plans for an expedition were put on hold until final approval came in 1597. That summer Juan de Oñate send Vicente de Zaldivar to blaze a trail from Santa Barbara in southern Chihuahua along a route north that would have available food and water. Poor Zaldivar had a rough time of it, suffering a great deal from the elements, privation and even being captured for a time by hostile Indians but he persevered in his duty. Today this original route is now the main highway between Chihuahua, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. In early March of 1598 Juan de Oñate set out on his expedition with 500-600 Spanish soldiers, colonists (women and children included) and about 7,000 head of livestock. They endured immense hardships as they tramped north over 50 miles of rough terrain. By the last five days they had run out of water and were scrounging for roots and cactus and all were nearly dead from dehydration before they reached water.

After reaching the Rio Grande at or about San Elizario the column rested for ten days after which time Oñate ordered a special feast of thanksgiving to God for their survival. Wild game was shot, fish was provided by local Indians and everything was set for a traditional Spanish fiesta. First a special mass of thanks to God was said by the Franciscan missionaries who accompanied the expedition and Juan de Oñate also took the occasion to formally claim possession of the lands drained by the Rio Grande for Almighty God and King Philip II of Spain. Everyone feasted and celebrated around a great bonfire. A member of the expedition wrote, “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”. Once the thanksgiving feast was over Oñate and his intrepid band continued north to settle near what is now Santa Fé, New Mexico.

So, for all of you who have not heard about this before, consider yourself enlightened as to the real “first” thanksgiving in North America. Instead of Pilgrims in black hats and white collars picture brown-robed Franciscans and Spaniards in comb-morion helmets. Instead of George Washington in 1789 or Abraham Lincoln in 1863 picture King Philip II in 1598. Now, to be fair, monarchists are correct to point out that the New England pilgrims did begin their famous “Mayflower Compact” with a declaration of loyalty to King James I of Britain, but given their adamant religious dissent, their flight to Holland and then to America, I do not think any would take the Pilgrims for ardent royalists and, indeed, in the English Civil War of later years the Puritan area of New England was the most firmly anti-royalist region of all the English colonies in America. For that reason, not only as a proud Texan but a monarchist as well (and there are other reasons) I prefer to remember the actual ‘first thanksgiving’ on the Rio Grande rather than the Puritan affair of New England.


  1. As a monarchist and a Catholic, I've always found a celebration of Oñate for more appropriate than a celebration of Puritans.

    However, as a New Englander also (don't dare call me a Yankee), I must note there is but one point about the Puritan narrative that is redeemable: the Indian Squanto, who was redeemed from English slavery by Spanish Franciscans and converted to the Catholic faith before being repatriated. His helping the Puritans in spite of having been a slave of the English says volumes about Catholic virtue. Sadly, the Puritans soon forgot about that and turned against Squanto's people, showing themselves, for all their talk about "thanksgiving" to be pure ingrates. I should know, as I'm surrounded by them (and most of them here, even if they are Catholic, have become cultural Puritans; New England has a funny effect on people).

  2. I did not know that. And Squanto went back afterward?! I hope for his sake he wasn't too open about becoming a Catholic. I imagine the Puritans would hold that to be even worse than being an 'ignorant heathen'. Run Squanto! Run!

    To be fair the Spanish "turned" on the Indians as well, though the number that were killed were far fewer compared to the number that were married -hence the majority Mestizo population.

  3. I just found this out today and it was quite a surprise to me as well. As the Puritans didn't turn on Squanto during his lifetime, I would suppose that he concealed his religion from them.

    Surely there were sins in Spanish rule of America as well, but I would propose the perhaps the best place to be an Indian among white men in the Americas was Québec. But of course, I'm somewhat partisan.

  4. Not to detract but, before the Puritans didn't the Jamestown Settlers also have a Thanksgiving?

  5. Historically that's probably true (not sure about today though). I have some Native American relatives on the reservation in Canada but they're not in Quebec. It is also worth pointing out that, while the Spanish were not always 'buddies' the clergy back then were very vocal in standing up for the Indians. Also, here in Texas, it all depended on the tribe. The farming Indians loved the Spanish who protected them from the nomadic tribes -those nomadic tribes obviously were not so fond of the Spaniards.

    New France was probably the best place to be an Indian if for no other reason than that the French were the least of the 3 major western powers in North America when it came to colonization of the lands they claimed. They were more apt to come to do business with you rather than take your land and set up housekeeping on it.

    I'm going on way too long here, but this is *thing* with me; but that is why the Indians sided with the French against the British in the French & Indian War. It was not ignorance, it was not bribery, it was not a conspiracy of "bad guys" -it was because the Indians knew that their interests would best be served by a French victory; just as they later determined it would be in their best interests if the British defeated the rebel American colonists.

  6. Zarove, you are correct, there was a thanksgiving in Jamestown, Virginia but the one in Texas was still first. The Jamestown thanksgiving being sometime in the 1600's I believe.

  7. MM, I agree in large part with you when you say that the Indians saw that their interests were best served by a French victory. Though the métissage was not as great as New Spain, every French-Canadian can proudly claim some amount of Indian blood (1/128 by way of the Abénakais in my case). Thus, I commemorated Louis Riel and the Métis revolts this week, and wear a ceinture fléchée during carnival week. Nonetheless, one must also consider the conflicts between the various tribes before European settlement was a factor. Those who sided with the French often did so in large part to ally with them against the powerful Iroquois Confederation, who themselves became English allies throughout the Revolution/1812 wars--witness Joseph Brant. Also notice that the English and French allies were never deported westward but remain in Ontario, Québec, or New York (and the French allies, like the Québec French themselves, became English allies upon the amicable terms of King George's treaty before the American war).


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