This November, Americans will gather to celebrate a national holiday of Thanksgiving. Stories of pilgrims and natives in present-day New England will be told, but did you know that a feast of Thanksgiving took place in Texas between Europeans and indigenous Americans long before the Pilgrims headed to the new world? That’s right, Texas can lay claim to the first Thanksgiving in America.
Juan de Oñate y Salazar was a Spanish conquistador who was tasked with settling the unexplored territory of Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico). In 1598 he headed an expedition of around 500 men, women, and children north. The party, which also included 7,000 head of cattle, forged a new route across the Chihuahuan desert. The trip was dangerous with treacherous rains at the beginning of the trek and critically dry conditions towards the end. The last five days in the desert were the worst as the party ran out of food and water. The starving and thirsty settlers continued on, finally reaching the banks of the Rio Grande River near present-day San Elizario, Texas.
After resting for ten days, Oñate ordered a day of thanksgiving on April 30, 1598, Ascension Day, to celebrate the successful journey across the desert and to give thanks to God for blessing the expedition. The day of thanksgiving included a feast with members of the local Mansos tribe. The Spaniards and indigenous Americans feasted on game provided by the Spaniards and fish provided by the Mansos. Turkey was not served. Oñate also read “La Toma” – the Taking – a proclamation that claimed the territory north of the Rio Grande as the property of the King of Spain. Finally, Captain Marcos Farfán de los Godos performed a play in what is the first recorded theatrical performance in America.
The Spaniards did not stay in the area long before continuing up the Rio Grande settling near present-day Santa Fe. While their stay in Texas was brief, it was notable because in reading “La Toma,” Oñate officially opened the American southwest to Europeans, forever changing history. And to think that this momentous event happened more than 20 years before the Pilgrims were celebrating their own Thanksgiving half-way across the continent.
If you liked reading this story, make sure to visit The Bryan Museum in Galveston, Texas, where you can hear many stories of Texas and the American southwest. We are closed on Thanksgiving but will be open the rest of the holiday weekend.