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Rio Grande Thanksgiving
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Shannon Simpson
If you know American history, you surely know the story of the colonizers' arrival to the New World. Before arriving, the group endured many hardships. Everyone and everything was in terrible condition. Their shoes and clothes were decrepit. They continued because they knew that all things must sometime end. After all, God was watching over them.
This event sounds like the traditional landing of the Pilgrims, but this the description of Don Juan De Oñate's arrival at the area which is now known as San Elizario. The date was April 1598, 23 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Oñate and his entourage consisted of a total of 400 men, 138 families, 7,000 head of livestock and about 80 ox-drawn carts. The procession stretched over four miles.
These men and women left their secure homes in México in the hopes of becoming members of the nobility in the new land. Their journey took them across the Chihuahuan desert, one of the most desolate regions of México.
The journey lasted over three months. Their diet consisted of berries and roots, and their water came from cactus and other desert plants. When the travelers finally reached the Rio Grande, they planned a grand celebration. They ate fish and goose and duck with Piro and Manso Indians. Some of the soldiers performed a play, which depicted the group's hardships, then its success. Then they had a ceremonial mass. This was the first Thanksgiving on American soil.
Only an accident of nature gives Texas a claim to this event. The spot where the feast was originally held was actually in Mexican territory. This area was south of the river until the 1830s. Later the Rio Grande, which forms the boundary between the U. S. and México, changed course.
Sheldon Hall, president of the Mission Trail Association, is responsible for bringing this historical event to the public's attention. He first became aware of this Thanksgiving after reading the journal of Gaspar Perez De Villagra, a member of the Oñate trek.
The Mission Trail Association has put tremendous effort into getting this event recognized. In April of 1989 the feast was re-enacted at the Chamizal National Memorial, and nearly 4,000 people attended. This re-enactment is now held every year on the last Sunday of April.
Every year the play is improved. In the past two years a table with the actual banquet has been added. Many more monks have been incorporated into the play. The men wear boots and spurs. "This year Spanish beards were added," says Hall. "We did not have them the previous years.
On April 23, 1990, an official document was drawn up by the Texas House of Representatives declaring this feast an official holiday. The Texas legislature asked the Massachusetts legislature to recognize that the Southwest, rather than New England, celebrated the first Thanksgiving feast. A copy of the resolution was forwarded to Massachusetts as a formal request that its members also accept commemoration of Oñate's expedition as an official holiday. Of course the Massachusetts legislators did not accept the resolution, but at least they are now aware of El Paso and the Rio Grande Thanksgiving.
The Plimouth Plantation organization has invited El Paso's conquistadors to participate in their Massachusetts celebration in the fall of 1991. In the spring of 1992 some of the Pilgrims in turn will come and participate in the Spanish commemoration.
History existed in America before Europeans arrived here. People both in the Southwest and other parts of the country are becoming aware of the Oñate expedition. Our history books should record the Thanksgiving on the Rio Grande along with the Plymouth Thanksgiving.