San Elizario was first in the nation to celebrate Thanksgiving
By Joe Olvera ©, 2011
When El Pasoan Sheldon Hall – then President of the El Paso Mission Trail Association – began the process in 1989 of designating and recognizing El Paso as the site of the first Thanksgiving in the United States, he never imagined the event would still be observed 22 years later. To be sure, there was an uproar over Hall’s contention that the first Thanksgiving took place on April 30, 1598 in a spot near San Elizario in El Paso’s Lower Valley, superseding the traditional date of the Pilgrim’s Thanksgiving which had occurred in 1621.
With the First Federal Credit Union Sun Carnival Parade come and gone, and the delicious turkey tucked away in El Paso stomachs, El Pasoans can look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving again April 30, 2011. The story goes that Juan de Onate, member of a prominent Spanish family, had been given a land grant by the Spanish Viceroy in New Mexico. His land was situated in the northern Rio Grande Valley among the Pueblo Indians.
According to Mike Kingston – editor of the Texas Almanac from 1990-1991 – in the summer of 1597 Onate sent Vicente de Zaldivar to blaze a trail from Santa Barbara in southern Chihuahua, along a road where water was plentiful. Zaldivar, however, found nothing but hardship, including his being captured by Indians. This trail has become the route of the modern highway between Chihuahua City and El Paso. Onate followed soon in 1598, with an expedition of 500 people, including soldiers, colonists, wives and children, and 7,000 heads of livestock to cross the hazardous Chihuahua desert. The travelers faced rain, thirst, and other hardships – but, they continued on their trek.
Finally, they reached the Rio Grande in a starved and parched condition. Both humans and animals suffered immensely before they reached water. The Rio Grande was then the salvation of the expedition. To celebrate their arrival in San Elizario, Onate ordered a feast, supplied with game by the Spaniards and with fish by the natives of the region. A mass was said by the Franciscan missionaries traveling with the expedition. Finally, Onate read La Toma – or the taking of land in the name of the King Phillip II of Spain. Some historians consider this Toma as marking the beginning of Spanish colonization in the American Southwest.
The first Thanksgiving consisted of building a giant bonfire and roasting the meat and fish to sit before a repast unlike which the explorers had never seen before. This then, Hall contends, actually marked the first Thanksgiving in the Continental United States, refuting the Pilgrims claim that they were the first. To mark the event, Hall was largely responsible for supplying participants in 1989 with, more or less, authentic clothing that Onate’s party wore as they crossed the Rio Grande into what is now San Elizario. The first re-enactment took place at the Chamizal National Memorial. Consequent re-enactments, however, were moved to San Elizario, where the tradition continues today.
However, El Paso isn’t the first by other peoples’ reckoning. The field is becoming even more crowded, with other locales clamoring for attention as the site of the “first” thanksgiving. Other claims to being first include:
*The Texas Society of Daughters of the American Colonists placed a marker outside Canyon, Texas that claims Francisco Vazquez de Coronado dedicated the Feast of Thanksgiving in 1541;
*Connecticut receives credit for adopting an annual day of general Thanksgiving on Sept. 18, 1639;
*The Puritans who arrived to establish Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 observed a day of prayer that is often called the “First Thanksgiving;”
*Maine also claims to be the first on the basis of a service held by colonists on August 9, 1607, to give thanks for a safe voyage;
*Virginians are convinced that their ancestors celebrated the first Thanksgiving when Jamestown settlers in 1610 held a series of thanksgiving for surviving a harsh winter. So, whether Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Maine claim to be the first – they all are really Johnny-come-latelys. Because the first ever Thanksgiving celebration took place in El Paso, Texas near what is now San Elizario. So, put that in your drumstick and eat it. Happy Thanksgiving.