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Thanksgiving Claims
of Texas and Others

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
On 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.

Boastful 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 22, 2016
First published November 26, 2014

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