From the archives: Was the first Thanksgiving held in Texas?

Each spring, a handful of residents from San Elizario, Texas, outside El Paso, gather dressed as conquistadors and native Americans and feast in remembrance of the 'First Thanksgiving' in Texas, 1565. Photo by Lila and Joe Grossinger.

Each spring, a handful of residents from San Elizario, Texas, outside El Paso, gather dressed as conquistadors and native Americans and feast in remembrance of the ‘First Thanksgiving’ in Texas, 1598. Photo by Lila and Joe Grossinger.

Thanksgiving, at least the Thanksgiving we celebrate now, has its roots in Plymouth Rock, but both Texas and Florida have made their cases, to varying degrees of intensity, you’ll read below, that the first Thanksgiving feast was actually held in their respective states.

I wrote this column four years ago, and the subject of Texas hosting the first Thanksgiving recently came up in a taping of this week’s Statesman Shots podcast, which is all about Thanksgiving and will publish sometime tomorrow.

Ahead of that podcast, here’s the original story that ran on Nov. 21, 2011:

Was the first Thanksgiving feast really held in Texas?

There’s little debate that Thanksgiving as we know it stems from a dinner in 1621 between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag celebrating the newcomers’ first successful harvest, but historians have plenty of proof that this wasn’t the first feast of thanksgiving shared between Europeans who’d come to settle the New World and American Indians who were already living here.

Way back in 1565, more than 50 years before the Pilgrims left England on the Mayflower, Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the Timucua Indians shared a meal of thanks – and oysters, clams and garbanzo bean soup – in St. Augustine, Fla.

Texas’ first Thanksgiving claim doesn’t go back quite that far, but close.

In spring of 1598, Juan de Oñate led more than 400 men, women and children almost 400 miles across the Chihuahuan Desert to claim the northern Rio Grande Valley for Spain. On the final days of the trip, the travelers ran out of food and water, so when they finally reached the Rio Grande, there was cause for much celebration.

After spending 10 days in the shade of the cottonwood trees along the river recuperating, Oñate ordered a day of thanksgiving that featured a mass, a reading of La Toma, which declared the land a possession of King Philip II of Spain, and a great meal, with duck and geese that the Spaniards had hunted and fish from the native population.

“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,” a member of the expedition 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.”

Every year, on the fourth Saturday in April, people in San Elizario, the small town outside El Paso where Oñate’s meal took place, mark the occasion with a re-enactment and speakers talking about the importance of the event, says Eloisa Levario, who runs the Los Portales museum in San Elizario that features an exhibit on the first Texas Thanksgiving.

Few in San Elizario go so far as to re-create the meal itself, but Levario says it’s important to keep the Oñate story alive. “We celebrate the regular pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, ” she says. But the first Thanksgiving event “brings in a lot of folks and it takes them back to the era of what it would have been like if they had been there.”

Gov. Ann Richards thrust the Texas Thanksgiving into the national spotlight 20 years ago when she signed a proclamation declaring Texas as the home of the first true Thanksgiving, which triggered an lively but mostly good-natured back-and-forth between promoters of both the Massachusetts Thanksgiving and the Texas one.

Dressed as conquistadors, members of the El Paso Mission Trail Association traveled to Plymouth, Mass., in November 1992 to debate a group of people dressed as Pilgrims over who held the first Thanksgiving. According to news reports of the exchanges, the Plymouth County sheriff “arrested” the Texans on charges of “blasphemy and spreading false rumors” and held a mock trial.

The next year, a group of Massachusetts residents dressed as Pilgrims and traveled to El Paso and San Elizario, where they were (fake) arrested, charged with spying, thrown in jail and threatened with hanging.

Elizabeth Engelhardt, professor of American history at the University of Texas, says it’s no surprise that there’s an emotional backlash against long-held cultural traditions. “People just really want to figure out what was the first, ” she says. “But for me, it’s not so much about which one of those stories is true, but what are you telling me about yourself when you care about those stories.”

Thanksgiving is such an intimate holiday, she says, that telling and retelling stories, especially of where our Thanksgiving traditions come from, are as important as the meal. “Memory is so much a part of it, ” she says, and history – the whole spectrum of historical record, both what actually happened and the history that the winners chose to record – is nothing if not a collection of memories. (It’s also worth noting that what we chose to forget says much about us, too. We like to remember the spirit of sharing and common good celebrated at these meals between conquerors and the soon-to-be-conquered, but it’s less comfortable to acknowledge the hundreds of years of violent strife throughout the country that followed.)

“There was always a certain amount of tongue and cheek involved, ” says food writer (and former Austinite) Robb Walsh, who wrote about Texas’ first Thanksgiving in his 2004 book, “The Tex-Mex Cookbook, ” of Richards’ proclamation and the subsequent exchanges between Texans and Bay Staters.

Most of the rest of the country learns the New England version of American history, which greatly overlooks the colonization that happened in the South and Southwest before the American Revolution, but “Texans look at their history from a Texas point of view, ” he says. “To say that American history started with the Pilgrim, what sense does that make?”

Even the most vocal advocates of Texas’ first Thanksgiving acknowledge that Thanksgiving as we know it is an extension of the Pilgrim tradition, but too often, we let cultural traditions like turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce alter how we think of American history. “Just so we don’t get too full of the idea that the Pilgrims started America, ” Walsh says. “It’s good to remember that other people were giving thanks before them.”

So how does he celebrate the Texas Thanksgiving? By stuffing his Pilgrim Thanksgiving turkey with tamales.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

 


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