SAN ANGELO, Texas — According to many historians and the Legislative Reference Library of Texas, the first Thanksgiving celebration in the United States took place near El Paso in 1598 in what is now San Elizario, 23 years before the Pilgrims held their famous dinner at Plymouth Rock.
Texas’s Thanksgiving began with Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate and his expedition on April 30, 1598. Oñate wanted to make his mark on history by leading an important expedition into unexplored land and was finally approved in 1597, according to the Texas Almanac. The expedition consisted of 500 people, including soldiers, colonists, wives and children, and 7,000 heads of livestock attempting a trek across the Chihuahuan Desert.
During the 50-day march, the colonists making this journey faced unfortune everywhere they turned, with the first week comprising heavy rain and the following days suffering from extremely dry conditions. During the last leg of their journey, the colonists’ supplies were all used up, forcing them to seek roots and other desert vegetation to eat. The hunger and dehydration droves the travelers mad and upon finding water in the Rio Grande river, two horses drank so much their stomachs burst and two others drowned in their haste to drink.
The Rio Grande River gave new hope to the expedition, and the travelers stayed to recuperate for 10 days. Oñate ordered a day of thanksgiving for the survival of the expedition, which included a feast, games, and fish supplied by the natives of the region. Historians believe this event marked the beginning of Spanish colonization in the American Southwest and the first Thanksgiving celebration.
According to the Texas Almanac, a member of the expedition wrote of the original celebration, “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. . .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.”
Several states have claimed the first thanksgiving, noting historical events such as a special thanksgiving prayer, giving thanks for a safe voyage, or the survival of a harsh winter that supersedes the events of Plymouth Rock but one thing history can agree upon however is that giving thanks is a timeless tradition.