The first Thanksgiving in North America didn’t take place at Plymouth Planation and there were no Pilgrims in attendance.
The first Thanksgiving actually took place in Texas.
Well, in what would become known as Texas.
In 1597, Juan de Oñate was granted permission by the viceroy of New Spain to explore, Catholicize, and colonize an area of the northern Rio Grande Valley.
Oñate sent Vicente de Zaldívar to explore and establish a wagon trail from Santa Barbara in southern Chihuahua to the area to be colonized. Zaldívar encountered great hardship during his trek but made no mention of such in his report to Oñate upon his return.
Thinking the trail was more or less set and the journey an easy one, Oñate prepared to his expeditionary force and headed north from Santa Barbara in southern Chihuahuain early March 1598 with an estimated 400 to 500 people and roughly 7,000 head of cattle.
The expedition faced hardship after hardship. Seven consecutive days of rain slowed travel considerably and made conditions miserable. This was followed by days upon days of not encountering water of any kind.
Provisions ran out and spirits fell. Men, women, and children dug roots from beneath the desert floor for something to eat and the animals went without.
After a period of five days with no food or water the expedition spotted the banks of the Rio Grande. Capt. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá later wrote of the horror and relief he and others in the expedition suffered on that day: “The gaunt horses approached the rolling stream and plunged headlong into it. Two of them drank so much that they burst their sides and died. Two others, blinded by their raving thirst, plunged so far into the stream that they were caught in its swift current and drowned.
“Our men… threw themselves into the water and drank as though the entire river did not carry enough to quench their terrible thirst. Then satisfied, they threw themselves upon the cool sands, like foul wretches stretched upon some tavern floor in a drunken orgy, deformed and swollen and more like toads than men.”
The group recuperated for 10 days at which time Oñate ordered a day of thanksgiving for their survival.
On April 30, 1598 a mass was given by the Franciscan missionaries traveling with the expedition and the group feasted on wild game taken by expedition members and fish caught by the local Mansos people.
Villagrá later wrote, “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.”
Given that this day of thanksgiving preceded the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving by 23 years, it is considered to be the first “Thanksgiving” in North America.
So much, in fact, that that in 1990, the Texas House, Senate and Governor Rick Perry acknowledged April 30, 1598, as the official day of the First Thanksgiving.
Young is a Fredericksburg-based writer, teacher, Scout leader and avid outdoorsman