It's common knowledge that in 1621 the first Thanksgiving was celebrated at Plymouth.
But some say the “real” first Thanksgiving took place more than 20 years earlier near present-day El Paso, when at least 400 Spaniards, in an exploration led by Juan de Oñate, feasted with the Mansos tribe.
Like any good Thanksgiving discussion, there’s a thread of discord sown through that narrative. While everyone recognizes its importance in the history of North America, some argue that, unlike the feast at Plymouth, it’s not a harvest festival.
The seeds of Oñate’s expedition were planted a few years before the feast. Oñate was born into wealth and plied his trade for years as a silver miner near his hometown of Zacatecas throughout his 20s, meanwhile helping establish smaller missions in the area. Because of his experience as both a prospector and, as he saw it, a capable amateur conquistador, he began petitioning the King Philip II for permission to explore, Catholicize and colonize Nuevo Mexico.
After years of petitioning provincial governors, Oñate was granted his contract in 1595 and his party launched three years later in 1598, leaving with an estimate 400 to 500 people and around 7,000 head of cattle.
The 50-day journey across the Chihuahua Desert was unforgiving to the expedition. Their provisions ran out quickly and the desert provided little respite in the form of running water or rainfall. But, after five days without water, the party finally spotted the banks of the Rio Grande. Capt. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, who provided an extensive written record of the trek:
The gaunt horses approached the rolling stream and plunged headlong into it. Two of them drank so much that they burst their sides and died. Two others, blinded by their raving thirst, plunged so far into the stream that they were caught in its swift current and drowned. Our men… threw themselves into the water and drank as though the entire river did not carry enough to quench their terrible thirst. Then satisfied, they threw themselves upon the cool sands, like foul wretches stretched upon some tavern floor in a drunken orgy, deformed and swollen and more like toads than men.
Ten days later on April 30, 1598, Oñate decided to celebrate both the near scrape with death in the desert and the party’s arrival at San Elizario. However, the festivities also served to announce “La Toma” – an announcement that staked Spain’s claim on the Rio Grande and all its tributaries, marking the inauguration of Spain’s more than 200-year reign over what would become Texas and much of the southwest.
“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,” Villagrá 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.”
Oñate extended the invitation to the nearby Mansos tribe and held a Mass that both commemorated La Toma and prayed for an end to the crippling drought that had affected the region.
While the feast didn’t completely incorporate all the trappings of a traditional Anglo, harvest-centric Thanksgiving celebrations, some argue it qualifies as the first because it’s a celebration between both European colonists and natives of the New World. Whether it is the “real” first Thanksgiving is up for debate. Even those in San Elizario, which reenacts the festival every year, say the event has been overshadowed by its focus on Thanksgiving and hasn’t reconciled the importance of La Toma. Al Borrego, president of the San Elizario Genealogical and Historical Society, even referred to the event as “Thanks-taking” in an El Paso Times article last year.
Still, that’s not even the only claim to the first Thanksgiving in Texas, according to the Texas Almanac. A historical marker outside of Canyon claimed Francisco Vázquez de Coronado celebrated the first Thanksgiving near the Palo Duro Canyon in 1541 – though some debate whether that was a true Thanksgiving or a celebration of the Feast of the Ascension, which falls in the spring. And the first official Thanksgiving in Texas was declared by Gov. George Wood, setting the date for the first Thursday in December.
However, the feast on the Rio Grande does have a historical credit none of the other Texan Thanksgivings can boast. As the celebration concluded, one of Oñate’s captains, Marcos Farfán de los Godos, performed a play, which some say is the first written theatrical performance in the history of what is now the United States.
To this day, the Thanksgiving at San Elizario is the only one officially recognized by Texas. Both houses of the Legislature commemorated the event in 1990 with an honorary resolution and former Gov. Rick Perry marked the day as the official day of the first Thanksgiving, according to the Legislative Reference Library.