Did you know the first Thanksgiving in the future United States took place on Texas soil? No, I’m not making that up. It happened on May 23, 1541. Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado held the feast to celebrate finding food supplies. At that time, he and his men were camped in Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. Feasting with them were Indians Coronado referred to as Tejas.
Another Thanksgiving took place on April 30, 1598. Don Juan de Oñate had been granted land in the northern Rio Grand Valley (in New Mexico) by the viceroy of New Spain. The usual route through Mexico followed the Rio Conchos to the Rio Grande, then turned north along that river into New Mexico. However the don wanted a more direct route, so he sent Vincente de Zaldívar to blaze a trail across the Chihuahuan Desert to the area of present day El Paso, Texas. Zaldívar experienced great hardship in his quest to locate water sources along the route, but when he reported back, he apparently did not tell Oñate just how bad the conditions were.
Consequently, in March 1598, Don Oñate began his trek north with a cavalcade of 500 soldiers, Franciscan missionaries, and colonists, including women and children, and some 7,000 head of livestock. First, they encountered heavy rain, then terrible drought, as well as trouble with Indians. They ran completely out of food and water before they reached the Rio Grande and were reduced to scrounging for roots and rare desert plants to survive. Both humans and animals suffered greatly from thirst.
Finally reaching the Rio Grande, Oñate and his followers took ten days to recover. Then he commanded they hold a day of thanks for their survival. For the feast, the Spaniards supplied game, while Manso Indians brought fish. The missionaries said mass and Oñate declared all land drained by the Rio Grande to be the possession of Spain’s King Philip II.
One member of the expedition wrote of the feast, “We built a great bonfire and roasted the meat and fish, and then all sat to a repast the like of which we had never enjoyed before . . . .” Begun in April 1989, El Paso now commemorates Oñate’s day of thanksgiving.
Note: Some historians insist the first Thanksgiving in the future U.S. took place on April 3, 1513, when Juan Ponce De Leon and his men landed on the Florida coast. They gave thanks as they waded ashore. However, I didn’t find any mention of a feast.
In 1842, Sam Houston, president of the young Texas Republic, gave thanks “. . . to render evidence of national blessings . . . and a profound belief in an Almighty God.” He established March 2 as Texas Independence Day and asked Texans to attend church on that day.
In 1848, two years after Texas joined the Union, Governor George T. Wood proclaimed the first Texas State Thanksgiving. By this act, Texas became the first southern state to celebrate a day of thanks.